Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Boy Who Drew Dirty | Part One: A Paperboy Hero | Chapter Eleven (end)

Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
Eleven

“Shes a hussy,” Dad says to Mom. “I could see that when we met her last summer at the Talent Wagon, wiggling her hips, showing off. But women never see these things.”
            “And men see what they want,” Mom snaps back. 
            At first I think theyre talking about Rose Anne, but it turns out its Molly. Dads just found out she's PG. Hes always the last to learn anything. Its Saturday morning and Im listening from the stairway as they talk in the kitchen.
            Well,” Dad asks, “whats she gonna do?”
            Don’t know. No one knows where shes gone.
            (Actually, Ralph told me. Shes living with her aunt in Des Moines.)
            “Just as well!” my dad sighs. “But, Michael, could he have...”
            “Dont be silly! He didnt even know what PG meant. I tried to explain, but I dont know how well I did. I wish youd help out.”
            “Told you a thousand times, I come from a time we didnt talk about such things.”
            Theres a silence. Dad slurps his coffee and I move nearer the door.
            "Michael,” my mother calls out, “are you eavesdropping again?”
            I jump up and enter the kitchen.
            “Hi!” I say, as naturally as possible. “I need you to sign this form.”
             Mom looks it over. “Whats this?”
            “I already told you. Its an okay to take the test for the scholarship to Exeter.” 
            She hands it to Dad. He signs it and hands it back. “Just because Clarence got a scholarship,” he says, “doesnt mean everyone can, so dont get your hopes up.”

*     *     *

            I dont find the multiple choice part of the test hard, but the essay (Why I Wish To Attend Exeter) is problematic. Still, there are only seven of us taking the test and the other guys all look like dummies from South Omaha, so I bite my pencil and get back to work. When I finally turn in my papers, I feel pretty good. But no time to dawdle, Im meeting Ralph at the museum to show him the dioramas. Were getting extra points for visiting, the only thing that would get him to come. Me, I already know what a diorama looks like. Still, Ralph and I have become real friends now and I want him to graduate so I help him with school––and he helps me with other things. Like explaining how you cause babies.
            “That aint the way its supposed to be,” Ralph gripes, looking at a sculpture of a young ballerina. “It should be all stone. Using cloth is cheating.”
            “Its bronze, not stone,” I say, “and I think the cloth looks neat.”
            The statues by Degas and though its made of bronze, its got a real cloth tutu and a ribbon tied to its hair­­––mixing cloth with metal is what makes it interesting. “In modern art,” I explain, “you get to do what youre not supposed to.”
            “Ill just bet he does what hes not sposed to do,” says Ralph, about the artist, while pointing between the legs of the statue. “Ill bet he uses art as an excuse to get little girls naked.” Then, pointing to a painting of a duke, “I like that one over there better.”
            I nod my head. “I like how everythings black except the red of his coat.”
            “I like the sword,” says Ralph.
            I take him down to the basement where theyve got rooms set up behind glass, rooms with old-time furniture, from when the pioneers first came to Nebraska. 
            “This is boring,” Ralph complains. “How long do we have to stay to get credit?”
            “Around this corner,” I say, pulling him along. “Look!
            Theres a huge glass window lit from within and though were deep in a museum, its as if were suddenly out on the prairie. “See how theyve made the background look like it goes on forever? And how about that Indian: real quills, feathers, arrowheads.”
            Ralph nods. “Pretty neat. But I dont like Indians. Bunch of drunks.”
            “My brothers dance in an Indian Society––with snakes in their mouths,” I say, “and the Indians that teach them arent drunks. They dance with fire hoops!”
            “And fire water,” Ralph laughs. 
            I ignore him. “Whats important is how real it looks. And we can do that with our dam, we can make it look this real, if only...”
            “W-w-what are you boys d-d-doing here?”
            Ralph and I jump, then spin around to find Piggly-Wiggly Lowry, arms on his hips, distrust on his face. “Ive s-s-seen you here before, Michael, and thought it odd, but you've always been an odd boy." Then turning to Ralph, “But I find it twice as m-m-mysterious finding you here. You must admit, Ralph, this is a surprising place to find someone like you. And a p-p-principal learns to be s-s-suspicious.” His eyebrows rise, eyes tighten. “You boys wouldnt be trying to p-p-pull something funny, would you?”
            I look at Ralph and Ralph looks at me. Whats he talking about?
            “Okay, boys, c-c-come on,” he coaxes, as if he can fool us into confessing to what-crime-I-dont-know. “Whats going on?”
            “It’s our dam project,” Ralph starts out.
            “Never a need to swear.” Mr. Lowry warns.
            Our Hoover Dam project, sir,” I add.
            Mr. Lowry looks as if he doesnt believe us.
            “Shit,” Ralph grumbles. “We ain’t doin’ nothing wrong here...”
            “Your vocabulary p-p-proves, young man, that you do not belong in a museum,” snaps Mr. Lowry, his expression turning to anger.
            “Were here gettinextra points!” Ralph complains. “Mrs. Ganders sent us.
            I put a hand on his arm to calm Ralph and the three of us stand there, a face-off, though theres not much Ralph or I could do to defend ourselves. And against what? Being in a museum without being forced? I listen to the ticking of the clock down the hall and think: I shouldnt have brought him, Ralph really doesnt belong here. 
             “Give me that,” Mr. Lowry demands, and I hand him my notebook. He opens it and looks through our plans: drawings, measurements, materials, and a pamphlet Dad got us about the history of Hoover Dam. “Hmmph,” he says, finally. “No dam in here.” Ralph points at the pamphlet about Hoover Dam. “I mean in the m-m-museum, theres no dam in this m-m-museum! So why are you here, really?” 
            “We want our dam model to look as good as this diorama,” I say.
             Mr. Lowry pivots, looks at the diorama as if its the first time hes seen it, turns back to our plans, then hands me my notebook. Finally, he puts his hands back on his hips. “The world never ceases to amaze. You two, together, in a p-p-place like this. F-f-forgive me for suspecting you of something m-m-malicious, but as a member of the Board I have a special duty to look out for whats b-b-best for the institution.” He gestures widely to include everything as if its his own, waits for our reaction (which doesnt come), then waddles down the hallway.
            “I hate him,” whispers Ralph. 
            “I do, too,” I say, remembering the problem with the cut-offs.
            “Yeah,” says Ralph, “but the difference is, you wont do anything about it.”

*     *     *

            “What are you doing down there?” my mom yells at my brother.
            Cliff’s removing the cages from the basement because hes gonna let his snakes go. He graduates from high school this year so hes too old for the Ahamo Indian Dance Society and its time to set them free. He says no one else is capable of caring for his snakes the way he does and who would want to?
            “Youre not going to let them loose in the neighborhood, are you?” Mom yells.
            “There are snakes all over the neighborhood already,” he yells back. "You just don't know where to find them."

*     *    *

            “Ro-o-o-ots and lea-ea-eaves. Themselves alone are the-e-ese.”
            Mrs. Fisher is leading the chorus through an especially tricky song. “This is modern,” she explains, “with dissonance, assonance, and abrupt changes in tempo. But we can do it! Just read the music, watch my hands, and sing out.”
            “Breast-sorrel and pinks of love...”
            I watch as Mr. Lowry enters the back of the gym, tiptoeing so as not to interrupt. “Try that again,” says Mrs. Fisher (who doesnt see him enter). “And Altos, I want to hear you, too, even if it seems above your range. Remember: diaphragm!
            “Fingers that wind aro-o-ound ti-i-ighter than vines,
            Gushes from the throats of birds, hid in the fo-li-age of trees...”
            Kids are missing notes, entering at the wrong time, embarrassed, giggling, but even with all that, its beautiful. The words are strange, but they remind me of Breugels landscapes. The melody? Hardly a melody at all, but maybe that's what makes it interesting.
            “...offered fresh to young per-er-sons
            wandering out in the fi-i-elds...”
            Now were singing together, moving to the rhythm of Mrs. Fishers hands! 
            “...if you bring the warmth of the sun to them,
            they will o-o-o-open, and bring...”
            Applause rings out from the rear of the room but its loud and ugly, destroying everything were trying to accomplish. Mr. Lowry steps forward, clapping slowly, an ugly sneer on his face. “W-w-wonderful, wonderful!” he says.
            Mrs. Fisher turns around. “Oh, hello, Mr. Lowry!” she cries out, in a voice higher than usual. “You gave me a scare. But what a nice surprise!”
            “Yes,” he says. “For both of us!”
            She turns to us, “Kids, lets get out Proud to Be an American.”
            “W-w-wait,” Mr. Lowry interrupts. “Id like to know, Miss F-f-fisher, just how many of us here like the song we were j-j-just singing?” Everyone remembers the quarrel Lowry and Miss Fisher had at Tri-School Choir, so even Ralph can tell this is a set-up. “Come now,” Mr. Lowry urges us, “dont be afraid. Someone here must like this music b-b-besides Mrs. Fisher.” He glances sideways at Mrs. Fisher.
            “I like it.” 
            Its a small voice from the Soprano Section, and I recognize it at once.
            “Oh, you do, Miss Forneau,” says Piggly-Wiggly. “Well, very good! B-b-but tell me,” he says, winking at the rest of us, “just what about this m-m-music do you like?”
            Theres complete silence. Nobody moves, suddenly no one wants to be associated with Judy. “I don’t know,” Judy finally answers softly. “I just think its pretty.”
            “Reminds me of Pokolief,” I blurt out, and why am I saying anything? Since I hate Judy. “Or that other guy...”
            “Well, arent we the c-c-connoisseur, Mr. Pozner,” says Mr. Lowry. “Pokolief?”
            “Pro-ko-fiev,” Mrs. Fisher helps out.
            “I know that,” Mr. Lowry snaps at her. “I know about classical music.”
            “Thats the guy!” I agree. “Prokofiev. Leonard Bernstein played him on TV Sunday, along with a guy whose music sounded even stranger, more like this song.”
            “Stravinsky,” Mrs. Fisher helps out again. “I saw that, too, Michael––Bernstein conducting Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. But tell me, did you really like that?”
            I realize Piggly-Wiggly is staring at me, angry because hes been cut from the conversation.
            Well, maybe I liked it,” I answer. “But,” I continue carefully, “Peter and the Wolf is the one I really liked.”
            “Youre digressing, Pozner,” Mr. Lowry complains. “Peter and the Wolf has nothing to do with...”
            Peter and the Wolf was set to music by Prokofiev,” Mrs. Fisher explains to Mr. Lowry. “And Bernstein played that, too.” Then theres another awful silence. My face is burning and I can feel Mr. Lowry staring at me. And not just him. Kids are staring, too, especially the guys. A guys not supposed to know these things.
            “I saw that show,” Judy says, swallowing, and almost too quietly to hear, “and I liked the Rite of Spring a lot.
            Well, isnt that peachy!” Mr. Lowry says, clapping his hands again. “That means there are three of us who really like this song and, of course, theres always room for...”
            “Actually,” interrupts Mrs. Fisher, as politely as possible, “we were just finishing with that. Children, please take out the music for Proud to Be an American.” She taps her directors wand lightly on the music stand. 
            We sing: “Im proud to be an American!” and Mr. Lowry begins tapping his foot along with the music. When we finish, Mrs. Fisher turns back, smiling, towards our principal. “Would you like to hear Swinging on a Star?”
            “Yes. I think thats an excellent choice for our children. Dont you?”
            After class, Judy Forneau tries to thank me for ‘defendingher.
            “What are you talking about?” I ask, as I crowd my way into a group of guys where she cant follow.

*     *     *

            “Why do you care what kind of music Lowry likes? Its none of your business.”  Howard slaps a ball into his mitt and sits back in the sofa. Were watching TV.
            “Its not that I care what he likes,” I answer. “Its that Mrs. Fisher likes it and shes the one who knows about music, so she should get to decide what we sing.”
            “Not if its un-American. Besides, who wants to hear that kind of junk? Its just a bunch of noise. Lowrys her boss and Mrs. Fishers supposed to do what he says.”
            “Can I switch the channel?” I ask.
            “Heck, no. Now I suppose theres somethings wrong with I Love Lucy?”

*     *     *

            The next night theres a light drizzle and as I deliver the route, I whistle Peter and the Wolf. Its perfect for a paperboy. “Got a kind of swagger to it,” my dad would say. (His favorite composer is John Phillips Souza.) When I get to Mrs. Gilliphans, shes waiting behind her screen door. I hand her the paper and she says, “I knew from that whistle my paperboy was coming. It's your trademark, like Lester Young and his porkpie hat.” 
             I whistle my way to the end of the route, the drizzle turns to rain, and when I arrive home Im drenched. Mom calls out, “Strip in the hallway and shower in the basement.” Which doesnt bother me because the snakes are gone. Moms always made us boys shower downstairs when its warm and Ive always hated that because the showers next to the pool table where Cliff kept his snake cages. Sometimes you'd get naked and soap up only to turn and find a huge snake curled in the corner of the stall. Nothing can make a guy feel skinnier than a snake in the shower. But the pool tables cleared off now and I can shower in peace. When Im done, I tie my towel around my waist and head up the stairs. As I pass through the kitchen Im met by Mom. Shes got an envelope with the words “Phillips Exeter Academy” on the corner. Its been opened.

*     *     *

            “So why didnt you tell us about this?” she asks.
            “I did tell you. Dad even gave me a ride to the test.”
            “I did no such thing.”
            “Yes, you did. You just dont remember.”
            My mom flattens the letter on the dining room table. “Both of you be quiet.” She studies the words again. “Dont misunderstand, Michael, were quite proud of you.” 
            Dad nods his head in agreement. “But you should have told us,” he adds.
            “I did! You didnt pay attention because you didnt think I could do it.”
            “Stop it!” my mom shouts. “Both of you.”
            Theres silence. Dad glares at me and I glare back. Finally Mom looks up. 
            “Youre awfully young to be going away to school,” she says.
            “And it would cost a huge amount of money,” my dad adds.
            “Only the first year,” my mom corrects him. “It says here,” shes pointing at the paper, “if he gets good grades his Freshman year, its free from then on.”
            “But look how much it costs without the scholarship!” I cry. “Wed be saving lots of money, even the first year."
            “I hardly call it saving lots of money when public school doesnt cost one red cent.” Dad shakes his head from side-to-side.
            “But, Dad,” I insist, “Clarence said its the best school of all. And Clarences school is expensive.
            His scholarship covers everything,” my dad interrupts.
            “But wait! I could pay for the first year. Ive got it in my bank account."
            “Hush!” my mother complains. Shes studying the letter again. “Well have to think about it,” she says. “Well have to study the matter.”      
            “Will you ask Clarence?” I beg. “Please?”
            Instead, they ask Mr. Lowry.
            “Mr. Lowry says,” my mom reports later, “that the only difference between Exeter and North High is that Exeter produces snobs.”
            “But Mom, you can't listen to him, you complained he wouldnt even help with Clarences application to Harvard…”
            “Yes, but that was different,” she says. “Clarence is studying to be a minister and Mr. Lowry's Catholic."
            “And theres the matter of cost,” my dad adds.
            “Plus, youre too young to be going so far away,” my mother says softly. “You may not understand now but someday youll thank us. You wouldnt want us to let you become a snob,” she says. “Youre too nice a person for that.”

*     *     *

            “Can just anybody listen to these records?”
             The librarian looks up. Shes eighteen or nineteen, pretty, and reminds me of someone Ive seen before but I dont know who.
            “Sorry, theyre for museum classes only.”
            I continue looking, not trying to be rude, just checking out whats there. “You probably wouldnt like them, anyway,” she adds. “Theyre classical.”
            “I like classical,” I say. “Heifetz, Prokofiev, The Rights of Spring...”
            Rite of Spring? By Stravinsky?”
            “Some people might call me a snob,” I continue, “but I like that kind of thing. By the way, which would you say is the most modern record youve got here? Which would you say people who hate modern music would hate most?”
            She pushes her chair back and comes over to the records Ive been inspecting.
            “Youre kind of a funny kid,” she says, like its a compliment. “Whats your name? Mine’s Ellen.
            As she crouches to thumb through the records I look at her closely. Shes dressed in black, hair pulled tight behind her head, a few wisps hanging loose against the neck of her sweater. And then I remember: she's the beatnik I saw with Mr. Finelli, one of the first nights I was learning the paper route.
            “Here,” she says, “this ones by Webern. Hes cool.” Then she pulls out another. “And this is Alban Bergs Lulu. If you like that, youre more than cool, youre absolutely stratospheric!” She hands me the albums. “Let me show you how to use earphones,” she says. “Because I couldnt get my work done if you were playing them out loud. And if any bigwigs come in, youre doing it for a school assignment, okay?”

*     *     *

            “How you gonna make Mr. Lowry pay?” Ralph demands again.
            I don’t know what you mean,” I say. But actually, Im not paying attention. I'm thinking about the librarian, Ellen––how nice she was––and how exciting the music was.
            “You gotta make Lowry pay for what he’s done,” Ralph insists.
             I snap to: “That's stupid. How you gonna make a principal pay? Theres nothing you can do to a principal. Not and get away with it.”
            “Wanna bet?” asks Ralph.
            “Leave me alone,” I complain and I raise my hand. “I gotta go to the bathroom.”  Mrs. Ganders gives me permission and I leave Ralph working on the dam. 
            Our dams gonna be in the Science Fair, the biggest thing in it. Its a first for both of us, but its even more important for Ralph than me. Hes never got so much as a B, let alone something like getting into the Science Fair. That gets you an A, automatically.
            When I return from the bathroom, Mrs. Ganders is leaning over Ralph and I hear her whispering, angrily, “What have you got there?”
            “Its for carving our initials in the model. So peoplell know who done it.”
            It cant be, he cant be stupid enough to have brought his...
            “I do not see anything,” hisses Mrs. Ganders, each word clear, strong, spaced apart. “And I must never see anything again. Do I make myself clear?”
            “Yes, Mrs. Ganders,” Ralph answers. Politely. And he looks sheepish. “Im sorry, Mrs. Ganders,” he says. “Really. Thank you, Mrs. Ganders.”
            A few minutes later on the way to gym, I whisper to Ralph, “What was that?”
            “She saw my knife. Mrs. Ganders saw my knife.”
            “You brought your knife to school? And she saw it and didnt kick you out?”
            “Yeah, but she said...”
            “I heard what she said! Listen, youd better not mess up all my hard work.”
            Your hard work!” he barks. “I did half the model and I passed both tests!”
            I look at him. We both know he cheated on the tests and didnt do anywhere near half the model. I did most of it. And my dad made the base. “Forget it,” I say.
            “Dont be so grouchy,” Ralph says, suddenly cheery. “She didnt throw me out. Dont you get it? They dont throw you out when youre gonna be in the Science Fair!”

*     *     *

            “Cool, absolutely stratospheric.” Thats what Ellen would call it and I agree. Ive had to go through years of old issues to find it, but here it is: the Life magazine article on Jackson Pollack. When I overheard Ellen mention him, I remembered it. First time I saw them I was too young to understand, but I never forgot these photos. The photographer mustve been lying on the floor because Pollack is looking down at you as if you were his canvas. In his hand, hes got a paint brush, fully loaded, and hes about to dribble––or splash––paint all over you. Its really cool. Absolutely stratospheric. Most importantly, Lowry would hate Jackson Pollack. Because Pollack doesnt make pictures of things. He makes pictures of nothing. So what can Lowry complain about?

*     *     *

            “I h-h-hope you b-b-boys will understand,” Mr. Lowry says, looking down at me and Ralph, “theres only so much space allotted each school and your d-d-dam would take up far more space than would be f-f-fair to the other students.”
            Neither of us says a thing, our expressions dont change, but Im sure Mr. Lowry can tell we hate him. He gives us a nod (is it supposed to be some kind of apology?) and pats me on the shoulder. He starts to pat Ralph, too, but thinks better of it. The look Ralphs giving him, Id be scared to touch him, too. 
            Lowry turns and leaves the classroom, and Mrs. Ganders comes over to us. 
            “Dont worry, boys,” she says. “Thats not the last word. Ill talk to him.”
            “Will you?” I ask, and I look towards Ralph for back-up.
            But Ralph doesnt say a word.

*     *     *

            Rains falling as I spot Ellen getting out of a car in front of the liquor store across from the museum. The car drives off and I recognize its driver: Mr. Finelli. I watch as Ellen opens her purse, pulls out a cigarette and lights up. Dodging traffic, I run over, wipe the rain from my face, and say, “Hey, Ellen, you know Mr. Finelli?”
            “Sort of,” she says, looking startled. “How do you know him?”
            I explain that he lets us drop our papers in his shop and she looks relieved. 
            I ask, “Do you have any books about Jackson Pollack?”
            “Ive got magazine articles. And theres a new book from the Museum of Modern Art with some of his stuff. Dont tell me youre interested in Pollack, too?”
            “Yeah,” I say, enjoying the way it seems to impress her.
            “You are so cool for your age,” she says, as she takes a draw from her cigarette, then exhales. “Pollack’s beautiful,she goes on. “His work is like music: it explains absolutely nothing,” and here she gestures dramatically, “but it nourishes the soul.”
            And isnt that a neat thing to say? She notices my open mouth, smiles again, then smirks, “I suppose youre so hip, you smoke.” Her eyes sparkle.
            “Sometimes,” I lie.
            “Wanna drag?” she asks. 
            Her cigarettes marked with lipstick but I put it against my lips and suck in some smoke, trying to keep it from going down my throat. Then I look over at her and feel something happening in my groin that I don't think has anything to do with the cigarette.
            Thanks,” I say, handing it back. “I needed that.”
            “Anytime,” she smiles, as she crushes whats left of the cigarette against the wall, placing it carefully back into her purse. “Time to get back to work,” she says. “Come on, Ill find you some stuff on Pollack.” We scurry across the street, through the rain, to the side entrance of the museum. I've never felt like this in my entire life.

*     *     *

            My dad complains, “Will you stop using that word atmospheric!" Were in the Safeway parking lot, walking to the car, and Ive just described our dam. “It makes you sound like a kook. A dam may be lots of things but a dams not atmospheric. And dont come whining about getting thrown out of The Science Fair. I warned you: hang around with trash and peoplell treat you like trash.”

*     *     *

            On Monday morning theres a police car sitting in front of the school. Ralph sees it, blurts, “Oh, shit!” and runs across the playground to the sycamore. I watch him pull something from his pocket and hide it in the branches. Then, fifteen minutes after class begins, Mr. Lowry appears in our classroom. With a policeman.
            “Ralph Brayton and Michael Pozner, please come with us,” he says and everyone stares as were led out of the room, down to the office. They sit us on a bench, were not allowed to talk; finally, each of us is led into Mr. Lowrys, alone. First me, then Ralph.
            So, Michael,” says the police officer, real fake-friendly-like, “wed like to know where you were Sunday evening, between six and nine.” Just like on Dragnet.
            “At Youth Fellowship, sir, Miller Park Presbyterian Church. But why?” 
            “Can you prove that?”
            “You could ask anyone. Like...like Judy Forneau. She was there.”
            They send for Judy, talk to her in the hall, then let me return to class. As I leave the office, I sneak a look at Ralph. Hes staring straight ahead, expressionless, but as I pass he smiles and waves. After school, Mrs. Ganders explains: “Ralph wont be coming back. Im afraid youll be without a partner for the rest of the year. I hope...”
            “Why wont he be coming back? What happened? Whatd he do?”
            “He slashed Mr. Lowrys tires, him and some other boys. It was stupid, even for Ralph.” She looks tired as she rubs the sides of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. “I liked Ralph. Really. Still, he didnt belong here, not after two years of failing.” She drums the desk with her fingers. “But now hes done it. And it was needless.” She shakes her head back and forth. “We both know Ralph did it because of the dam. Well, too bad! Because I had news for you two: the dams back in the Fair.”
            Which is not fair. Not fair at all.
            Mrs. Ganders tells me theyre putting the dam back in because its won a Citation for Earnest Effort, which means a permanent trophy for our school. But because of what happened, theyre putting it under my name only. Ralphs name cant be on it, they say, not after what he did. And thats not right. He worked so hard! For Ralph, anyway. Besides, I know something they dont: Ralph slashed Piggly-Wigglys tires because of the dam, its true; but partly, he did it for me as a gift because of what Lowry did to keep me out of Exeter. And I dont think Ralph even understood what Exeter was. 

                                                            *     *     *

            On Friday morning a week later, Mrs. Ganders asks me, “Is it well protected?”
            “I think so,” I answer and I pull the oilcloth snugly over the top of the dam.
            “Dwayne-Bob, help Michael carry the dam downstairs to my car.” 
            Dwayne-Bob mutters something under his breath. Were not good friends since Ralph got thrown out. Dwayne-Bob thinks its bad to be seen with me now.
            “Grab that end,” I say. 
            And as we back carefully out of the classroom, I realize what I have to do. 
            We get to the top of the stairs (were on the third floor) and I say, “Dwayne-Bob, I forgot the hammer. Balance your end on the banister and run back and get it. I can hold the dam till you get back.” And he does, he balances it on the banister just like I tell him. Its so easy to fool Dwayne-Bob.
            Straining to keep the model balanced, I turn my head and watch as he disappears into the classroom, then I turn back and tip the model up and over the banister. It hangs there a moment, frozen in mid-air, then slides off the base, and drops. I dont watch, but I listen––as it ricochets against banisters, bangs into walls, tumbles down steps and smashes into smithereens on the basement floor in front of the janitors door.



End of Part One

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Boy Who Drew Dirty | Part One: A Paperboy Hero | Chapter Ten

Before reading this, please go to chapter one:  here.
Ten



            Its Fall, the first day of school, and I arrive early on Mollys block, only to spot a ‘53 Chevy waiting out front of her house. With a guy in it. Whos 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! Its 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 Im 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. “Lets 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, its 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 Im both fair and fast. Treat me nice and Ill treat you the same. Treat me not nice––and Ill treat you the same. Understood?” She smiles. And so does Ralph. As if this years going to be different, as if this year hes going to turn smart, not get into trouble, and graduate.
            Mrs. Ganders looks at Molly, two aisles over, and asks: “Youre Ralphs sister?” Molly nods and Mrs. Ganders nods back, but says nothing. I sneak a look at Molly. She looks pretty, even though her hairs not combed and her blouse isnt ironed. But whyd she have to ride to school with that guy? Throughout the rest of the morning, I copy down everything Im supposed to, answer questions and even write stuff on the board, but I cant stop thinking about her. At lunchtime I wander out to the big sycamore and sit on the far side.
            In minutes, Mollys 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 didnt have such a good summer, maybe not a good one at all. We sit, and I chew, until I notice she hasnt 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. Im thinking: who was that guy you rode to school with? But I don’t say anything and theres 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 youd 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 shes 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 theyd 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. “Ill pay you back, really, I promise. Somehow. I mean it.” 
             “Seventy-five dollars?”
            “Michael, its a lot but I know youve 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 cant 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 thats leaking from her nose.
            “I cant do it,” I say, although this time I have to look away to do so. “The bank wont let me. My parents wouldnt let me.
            Her eyes close but its like shes glaring at me even though theyre 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 doesnt return to class when the bell rings.
            No one ever did that before so theres a Big Conference between Ralph and Mrs. Ganders in the cloakroom, Mrs. Ganders leaves for Piggly-Wigglys office and Ralph slinks back to his desk. When I ask whats going on, he answers his sisters gone home, sick, but pleads, “This doesnt mean we cant be study partners, does it?"

*     *     *

            The next morning Im careful as I approach Mollys house. I wait at the corner, behind a tree, for her to show up outside. But she doesnt. And no one else does, either. No Molly, no ‘53 Chevy, nothing. And its getting late. Finally, I run down the opposite side of the street (to avoid being seen) but Ralph mustve 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 shes sick.
            At class everything goes like normal, even though Mollys not there, but when its 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 hell 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. Ralphs 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 weve 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, “were 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, “Mollys 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?”
            “No, thanks.”
            Im scared to look inside for fear of finding Molly in the seat next to the driver. 
            You sure?
            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? Its dangerous. This is Colored Town.”
            “Been to the museum. And I always take this way home. Im 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 dont 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?”
            “No.”
            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. Theres a library in the basement.”
            Ralph makes a face like he thinks thats stupid. But after the cave, the Joslyn Art Museums 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 shes 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. “Its all about reincarnation and did we ever live before, in somebody elses body.”
            Weird.
            “Well, it makes you wonder,” I say, “if youre 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 couldnt unless shed actually been Bridey Murphy. Thats what reincarnations all about: youre 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 dont, but heres 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 Im smart enough not to say so to Ralph. “Dont you ever wonder about things like that?” I ask. “Dont 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 nothinlike that.” He flips his butt into the gutter. “In fact, I think thats stupid. Only thing I wonder is: am I going to graduate?” 
            “Youll graduate,” I say, not sure it’s true. “Im 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 havent got a chance. ‘Graduate, or you cant get a job,he says. "I don’t want to end up like him.”
            “Youll graduate,” I promise, though this time Im pretty sure its not true.  Still, Ill help him all I can and who knows the future? Ralph turns left at Crown Point, I turn right. “Dont forget,” I yell, as he walks away. “Come early Monday so we can finish our model of the dam. Its 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 wed have our Junior Fellowship Retreat inside Camp Catonkas Council Cabin, but its so warm weve 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 Ive liked him ever since. Hes one of the few adults I know who understands kids. And God––he knows all about God. So here we are at Retreat and hes 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.
            Were 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 dont worry or feel ashamed, God will forgive you. But now were going out for our last try and, frankly, Ive 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.
            Ive 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, doesnt count. “Youll know when you receive it,” he says. So I pull at the weeds around me and Im 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 its gonna die. Then I think: but God will know. Which is when it happens. Im 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. Its hard to explain.”
            Mr. Blinder nods his head. “Thats good,” he says and he looks around the group. “Anyone else feel something special?”         
            “But wait," I say. “Theres 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. “Thats terrific. Anybody else?”
            "Dream happy," I interrupt. And Im 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 didnt say it was like a happy dream, it was more like a command...”
            “Lets give everyone a chance to speak,” Mr. Blinder says, still smiling but brow furrowed. He turns to Judy Forneau, who says something, I dont know what, because Im listening to something inside, something I hadnt realized Id 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. Blinders 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 its like Ive been in a trance, hypnotized like Bridey Murphy, Mr. Blinders 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.
            Dream happy.

*     *     *

            At dinner that night, I ask my mom, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”
            “Of course not,” she answers, like Im being stupid. 
            “Thats Hindoo stuff,” Howard chimes in, but Mom shushes him.
            “And just what do you know about reincarnation?” she asks me. “They didnt teach you about that at Retreat, did they?”
            “No, but Ive been reading.” I go get Bridey Murphy and bring it to the table. 
            Mom looks at the title and says, “Whered you get this?”
            “I bought it with my own money.”
            “Ive heard about that book,” Dad says, as he takes it, turning the pages, reading a word here and there. “And while I dont know that much,” here he says something I swear I heard Clarence say, “I do know a lots going on that Science doesnt understand. And thats for sure!” He grins in a way its 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 Im 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 didnt have phones and hadnt seen or heard from him in months. He was here to visit, he said, and that excited me because he was my favorite uncle––hed 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 Id simply had a very ‘realdream 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. Hes 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: “Were watching the end of Communism,” Dad says, conclusively. But me, Im 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 dont 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 its so beautiful my mouth just hangs open. Then I wait and watch until I see a shooting star streak across the sky.