Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
It’s Fall, the first day of school, and I arrive early on Molly’s block, only to spot a ‘53 Chevy waiting out front of her house. With a guy in it. Who’s seventeen or eighteen. A hoodlum. I slow my steps and watch from the corner as Molly hops into the car and gives him a kiss. I start to yell, “Wait, Molly! It’s me, Michael!” But I shut my mouth just in time and watch as the car peels away from the curb and rumbles down the street. I stumble on to her house and pause in front as if she might still be coming out, as if my eyes might have made some terrible, huge mistake, and I’m starting down the street again when I hear, “Michael, wait up!” and turn to find Ralph, running to catch up.
"All right!” he says as he slaps me on the back. “Let’s get to school!”
* * *
Mrs. Ganders is lecturing in front of the class, feet apart, swaying back and forth, showing how strong she is. Us kids, arms crossed over our new books, are trying to act attentive. Then Dwayne-Bob, without realizing what he’s doing, pulls spit from his lips, stretches it into a thread and lets it snap and fall onto the front of his shirt. Judy Forneau cringes and motions to the other girls; guys lay their heads on their books to cover their laughter. With a weak teacher (like Miss Brubaker in the sixth grade) the class would fall apart, but Mrs. Gander simply pulls out a Kleenex, strolls down the aisle and hands it to Dwayne-Bob without missing a word.
Ralph, in the seat in front of me, turns and whispers, “When it comes time to pick partners, it’s me and you, okay?”
“Turn around, Ralph,” Mrs. Ganders says firmly. And he does. Immediately. “Ralph,” she says, tapping him lightly on the shoulder with her yardstick, “Ralph and I get along quite well––this is our third year, together––and he knows I’m both fair and fast. Treat me nice and I’ll treat you the same. Treat me not nice––and I’ll treat you the same. Understood?” She smiles. And so does Ralph. As if this year’s going to be different, as if this year he’s going to turn smart, not get into trouble, and graduate.
Mrs. Ganders looks at Molly, two aisles over, and asks: “You’re Ralph’s sister?” Molly nods and Mrs. Ganders nods back, but says nothing. I sneak a look at Molly. She looks pretty, even though her hair’s not combed and her blouse isn’t ironed. But why’d she have to ride to school with that guy? Throughout the rest of the morning, I copy down everything I’m supposed to, answer questions and even write stuff on the board, but I can’t stop thinking about her. At lunchtime I wander out to the big sycamore and sit on the far side.
In minutes, Molly’s at my side. I stare down at my sandwich, saying nothing, and finally Molly asks, “Did you have a nice summer?” I nod. “So did I,” she answers. But when I sneak a look at her, the look on her face makes me think she didn’t have such a good summer, maybe not a good one at all. We sit, and I chew, until I notice she hasn’t any lunch. I offer her a bite of my sandwich. “You can have half my banana, too.”
“Michael,” she says, when we're done, “Michael...” Then she turns her head away. I’m thinking: who was that guy you rode to school with? But I don’t say anything and there’s a long silence. “Michael,” she says again, not turning back; then once more falls silent. I still want to ask: who’d you drive to school with? And why? But again, I don't. “Michael,” she says, finally turning toward me, expression pained, “you told me once that when you got your paper route you’d buy me something. Did you mean it?”
“I guess so.” I look up through the branches into the sky. The sky is empty.
“Well,” she goes on, “I need something.” I look at her and realize she’s about to cry. “Money," she says. "I need money.”
I look away, focusing on the roots of the tree. In kindergarten I loved to drive my toy cars around the roots of this tree but I didn't like to share them; you could never be sure they’d be returned. But Molly is special, so I reach into my pocket and pull out my change. All of it. And count it out as fast as I can. A dollar-sixty. I offer it to her without looking her in the face.
“Oh, no,” she says, “I mean a lot of money.” I look up. "Seventy-five dollars,” she says quickly, and she stares me in the eyes, hard. “I’ll pay you back, really, I promise. Somehow. I mean it.”
“Michael, it’s a lot but I know you’ve got it. Way last June you bragged you had more than that. In your savings account.”
“But,” I lie, quickly and easily (which surprises me), “I can’t get money out of my account, I can only put it in.” Then I swallow like I always do when I lie. “Unless my parents sign for it, that is.”
“But Michael,” she says, batting away tears, “there must be some way!” She grabs my arm. “Please, I gotta get seventy-five dollars and I gotta get it fast!” She swipes at the snot that’s leaking from her nose.
“I can’t do it,” I say, although this time I have to look away to do so. “The bank won’t let me. My parents wouldn’t let me.”
Her eyes close but it’s like she’s glaring at me even though they’re shut. She lets go of my arm, her head moves up and down, and she whispers, “I understand.” Then she sniffs deep to clear her nose, wipes her face with her sleeve, lays the banana peel on top of the sack, gets up and walks away. And doesn’t return to class when the bell rings.
No one ever did that before so there’s a Big Conference between Ralph and Mrs. Ganders in the cloakroom, Mrs. Ganders leaves for Piggly-Wiggly’s office and Ralph slinks back to his desk. When I ask what’s going on, he answers his sister’s gone home, sick, but pleads, “This doesn’t mean we can’t be study partners, does it?"
* * *
The next morning I’m careful as I approach Molly’s house. I wait at the corner, behind a tree, for her to show up outside. But she doesn’t. And no one else does, either. No Molly, no ‘53 Chevy, nothing. And it’s getting late. Finally, I run down the opposite side of the street (to avoid being seen) but Ralph must’ve been watching for me because he comes flying out of the house: “Wait up! I gotta copy your math!”
I ask him where Molly is but he shrugs. “Guess she’s sick.”
At class everything goes like normal, even though Molly’s not there, but when it’s time to choose partners, Mrs. Ganders asks, “Is that what you really want, Michael? To be partners with Ralph?” I shrug and say I guess so. It simply means he’ll copy my homework and that already happens anyway, so what's the dif?
At lunchtime I find what the dif is: everyone avoids me. Even Dwayne-Bob. I catch guys at the far end of the playground staring. Ralph’s a tough guy, so what am I doing with him? At first it worries me (someone might tell Mom), then I decide I kinda like it. Those guys might actually be scared of us! But. Being partners with Ralph means I have to share my lunch and he eats even more than Molly. Then when we’ve emptied my sack, he surprises me by pulling out a pack of cigarettes. “You could get us kicked out of school,” I say. And as if a light just came on, Ralph answers, “Right!” and he quickly hides them in his pocket. “With you and me together,” he punches me in the side, happily, “we’re gonna graduate!”
* * *
Molly never does come back to school. Ever. Ralph never explains and neither does the teacher. We come to class, do our lessons (except for Ralph––I do his), we take tests and do sports (except for me––I draw Chryslers, in perspective), and then just before Halloween, I overhear Judy Forneau in the cloakroom tell Pam Andrews, “Molly’s PG.”
It's a good week before Ralph explains to me just what PG means.
* * *
Half a block up, the black ‘53 Chevy screeches to a stop, its driver throws it in reverse, squeals backwards and brakes sharply at the curb beside me. The back window rolls down and Ralph yells, “Hey, Michael, wanna ride?”
I’m scared to look inside for fear of finding Molly in the seat next to the driver.
I nod. The Chevy takes off. But at the corner it stops again. A door opens, Ralph jumps out, slaps the car as it roars away, then jogs back to my side.
“Whatcha doing, walking ‘round here? It’s dangerous. This is Colored Town.”
“Been to the museum. And I always take this way home. I’m not scared.”
“Gotta be careful of Coloreds,” Ralph says, as we walk north, towards our part of town. “They carry knives.” Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a knife of his own. “Course, they don’t scare me none, not long as I got this!” He pushes a button and a blade shoots out. I try not to look frightened. He puts the knife away and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “Want one?”
He lights up. “What were you doing at a museum, anyway?” he asks. “And where is it?"
“On Dodge Street,” I answer. “And I was looking at things: paintings, sculptures. And reading. There’s a library in the basement.”
Ralph makes a face like he thinks that’s stupid. But after the cave, the Joslyn Art Museum’s my favorite place, including its library; it's free but almost no one uses it, so me and the librarian have it all to ourselves. Except once, when Piggly-Wiggly came in and acted surprised to find me there. The librarian works in one corner and neither of us says anything to the other (again, except once, when she caught me talking to myself and asked what did I need). I know she trusts me because she’s left me in there alone. I can look at any book I want: painting, sculpture, architecture, even bring in books of my own. Which is another great thing about having a paper route: I can afford my own books.
“Were you reading something for an assignment?” Ralph asks, suspicious I might be working on a report without including him as partner. In answer, I pull out my new paperback and hold it up. Ralph tries to read the title: “The Search for...”
“...Bridey Murphy,” I help out. “It’s all about reincarnation and did we ever live before, in somebody else’s body.”
“Well, it makes you wonder,” I say, “if you’re really you. Know what I mean?” Ralph looks confused, so I explain. “See, they hypnotized this woman and in a trance she remembered a previous life in Ireland as Bridey Murphy and she knew all sorts of things she couldn’t unless she’d actually been Bridey Murphy. That’s what reincarnation’s all about: you’re somebody but not yourself, in another time and place and a different body. Why, in some other life, you could even be Colored!” Ralph cringes and shakes his head. “Well, believe it or don’t, but here’s proof.” I hold up the book again.
We turn west on Ames Street, sun at that winter angle that would make it pleasant to feel lonely, though I’m smart enough not to say so to Ralph. “Don’t you ever wonder about things like that?” I ask. “Don’t you ever wonder if you might not be who everyone thinks you are? Or that you might become somebody else after you die? If you die?”
Ralph shakes his head and blows smoke towards the dark gray sky. “No. I don’t wonder nothin’ like that.” He flips his butt into the gutter. “In fact, I think that’s stupid. Only thing I wonder is: am I going to graduate?”
“You’ll graduate,” I say, not sure it’s true. “I’m gonna help you.”
Then Ralph blurts, “They moved my oldest brother from Reform School to the State Prison Farm and he says without graduating from grade school you haven’t got a chance. ‘Graduate, or you can’t get a job,’ he says. "I don’t want to end up like him.”
“You’ll graduate,” I promise, though this time I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Still, I’ll help him all I can and who knows the future? Ralph turns left at Crown Point, I turn right. “Don’t forget,” I yell, as he walks away. “Come early Monday so we can finish our model of the dam. It’s extra points. Helps to get you a good grade."
* * *
“God gave us this Gift,” Mr. Blinder says, “and that Gift is Jesus. And when we accept this Gift, we become protected from harm, forever. But to gain this protection,” he adds, “we must first accept His Gift––simple, yet so hard to accomplish.”
This late in the year everyone assumed we’d have our Junior Fellowship Retreat inside Camp Catonka’s Council Cabin, but it’s so warm we’ve come out to sit on the grass, bare trees all around us bending to a soft wind, while Mr. Blinder leads us in contemplation and prayer.
Back in Primary Sunday School, Mr. Blinder taught us to use the side of a crayon to make neat effects and I’ve liked him ever since. He’s one of the few adults I know who understands kids. And God––he knows all about God. So here we are at Retreat and he’s reading to us from what he calls The Great American Thinkers: Emerson, Franklin, and Jefferson. After each reading, we go out on the grass alone, get quiet, and contemplate.
We’re supposed to be contemplating God and I really want to. But though I try to concentrate, my mind wanders. One of the kids asked about that and Mr. Blinder said don’t worry or feel ashamed, God will forgive you. But now we’re going out for our last try and, frankly, I’ve given up. Still, Mr. Blinder said listening is as important as concentrating so I relax and try to listen and every time I start to feel guilty I remind myself of the other thing he said: a sincere and inviting heart will receive.
I’ve wanted to receive since I was a kid. To be like Clarence and other Good People. And at times I've thought I had received, sort of, but sort of, Mr. Blinder says, doesn’t count. “You’ll know when you receive it,” he says. So I pull at the weeds around me and I’m lying there on my stomach, playing with this leaf when it happens: I notice a leaf, wilted, just a leaf on a weed in the pasture; no one cares about it and it’s gonna die. Then I think: but God will know. Which is when it happens. I’m just thinking how this leaf will turn into soil like clippings in our compost and suddenly I feel gigantic, my chest gets huge and I start to feel something warm and growing inside. Like a balloon being filled. And suddenly I know that God is talking to me and that he's saying this all makes sense. Not actual words, more a feeling, but real; and I lie there, glowing and growing, scared to move for fear of losing the feeling, when I hear Mr. Blinder ring the bell.
* * *
“It made me feel big inside,” I explain. “And comfortable, comfortable in a way I never felt before. It’s hard to explain.”
Mr. Blinder nods his head. “That’s good,” he says and he looks around the group. “Anyone else feel something special?”
“But wait," I say. “There’s more. This was something really important, it made my stomach feel like it was digesting better than ever.”
Kids laugh, but Mr. Blinder smiles again. “That’s terrific. Anybody else?”
"Dream happy," I interrupt. And I’m surprised at what I’ve said.
Mr. Blinder stops, looks back at me once again, smiles and holds his finger to his lips to shush me––though kindly. “For Michael it was like a happy dream,” he continues. “Now, anyone else want to explain how it made them feel?”
“No, wait,” I interrupt. “Not trying to be impolite, sir, but I didn’t say it was like a happy dream, it was more like a command...”
“Let’s give everyone a chance to speak,” Mr. Blinder says, still smiling but brow furrowed. He turns to Judy Forneau, who says something, I don’t know what, because I’m listening to something inside, something I hadn’t realized I’d heard when I got that feeling in the pasture: Dream happy.
It was like a voice, but not quite. More like the meteor I saw on my paper route––loud like that, yet absolutely silent. Of course, Mr. Blinder’s the expert, I might have it all wrong, but it seems to me if they ask you to listen and you get a response, they should pay attention. Because I did get a message, I'm sure of it: Dream happy.
I open my eyes and it’s like I’ve been in a trance, hypnotized like Bridey Murphy, Mr. Blinder’s got everyone in a circle, holding hands and singing: “Come ye thankful people, come. Raise the song of Harvest Home...” And as we sing, I really am thankful because inside my head I can still hear it.
* * *
At dinner that night, I ask my mom, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”
“Of course not,” she answers, like I’m being stupid.
“That’s Hindoo stuff,” Howard chimes in, but Mom shushes him.
“And just what do you know about reincarnation?” she asks me. “They didn’t teach you about that at Retreat, did they?”
“No, but I’ve been reading.” I go get Bridey Murphy and bring it to the table.
Mom looks at the title and says, “Where’d you get this?”
“I bought it with my own money.”
“I’ve heard about that book,” Dad says, as he takes it, turning the pages, reading a word here and there. “And while I don’t know that much,” here he says something I swear I heard Clarence say, “I do know a lot’s going on that Science doesn’t understand. And that’s for sure!” He grins in a way it’s obvious he wants someone to ask why.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because strange things have happened to your dad,” he says, baiting the hook.
“He means his Uncle Clyde,” Mom says, patting her lips with her napkin, getting up from the table.
“What do you mean?” I ask, like I’m supposed to.
“Well,” Dad starts out, as Mom clears the dishes, “I was even younger than you are now and we were living on the farm near Genoa. It was about four in the morning when I was awoken by a knocking at the front door. No one else got up so I wrapped myself in a blanket and went downstairs. I opened the door and there was Uncle Clyde. Clyde lived way out in Portland and in those days we didn’t have phones and hadn’t seen or heard from him in months. He was here to visit, he said, and that excited me because he was my favorite uncle––he’d given me my first pony, when I was seven. I ran upstairs and woke the whole family. Everyone got up but when they came down no one was there. We searched the house, the barn, the yard, everywhere. Finally, everyone decided I’d simply had a very ‘real’ dream and went back to bed.”
He pauses in his story.
“Yeah?” I say, fork in the air.
“The next day we got a telegram saying Clyde was dead. ‘Clyde died,’ it said, ‘pack and come.’ In those days you paid by the word. Later we learned Clyde had died at three a.m. Portland time, which for us was four. Exactly the time I woke everyone.”
Dad sits back on his stool, raises his eyebrows and smiles. He’s done a good job: I can feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I sit there looking at him, wishing we could always talk like this––we could be friends! And I almost tell him about the words I heard. But I don't. I just nod my head. “Wow.”
Then the conversation turns to the uprising in Hungary: “We’re watching the end of Communism,” Dad says, conclusively. But me, I’m still thinking about his story, about what happened to me today, and about the words. So I excuse myself, grab the garbage and go outside to the burn pile.
Above me, a thousand million stars are twinkling and I watch awhile before I put a match to the trash. The flames leap up, blotting out the darkness and the stars, and I turn away from the blast, towards the house. Through the windows, I see Dad in the kitchen lecturing Mom about the news, Mom doing the dishes, and upstairs Howard at his mirror trying to dance like Elvis. The blaze lights the exterior of our house like a stage set, a model for a really good toy train or the reproduction of Hoover Dam that Ralph and I are making out of cardboard, sawdust, and paste. And I think: it doesn't matter if I don’t understand exactly what Dream happy means because I am happy. And safe. Right now.
And in my head I hear us kids, at Retreat, singing.
“Come ye thankful people, come.
Raise the song of Harvest Home.
All is safely gathered in
Ere the wintry storms begin...”
I listen till the fire burns down and when the last ember turns black, the stars return and I look up and it’s so beautiful my mouth just hangs open. Then I wait and watch until I see a shooting star streak across the sky.