With his fifth birthday coming up, Art Dennison felt big enough to explore his neighborhood, or at least his block, which stretched a long way downhill from his front door. From the top of his stoop he could see lots of other stoops on Cameron Street—a hundred, maybe a thousand, he speculated, proud of his counting abilities—all of them identical, distinguished only by different railings and door colors. His was the one-two-three from the corner, with a blue door and no rail, important facts to remember when he set off on his trike.
Art had thought about the trike first thing this morning when the argument began. He was eating Cheerios, which were tolerable with exactly three teaspoons of sugar. He counted as his mother spooned because she sometimes forgot the correct number. Secretly he peered at the bowl first with one eye and then the other, testing the difference. Today he didn't have the patch on his right eye that Mom had made him wear for the past four days, ever since the doctor said, "If you don't strengthen your left eye you'll have to wear glasses, young man." Art hated the patch because it made the world dim and lopsided, so this morning he had deliberately forgotten it.
He was tall enough now, sitting on a cushion, to rest his elbows on the pink Formica table, an act that sometimes brought a rebuke from his mother—an unfair criticism because his father did it all the time. In fact, Dad was doing it this morning, leaning hard on his left elbow while he used his right hand to cut his eggs with the fork, spear the slices, shovel toast in his mouth, tilt the coffee cup and turn the newspaper pages, all at once. He could shower, shave, dress, eat breakfast and read the paper in the time it took Art to drink a glass of milk.
"Not again, please, Linda," Dad said, a little mushily because of egg.
"Not again what?"
"I can see what you're putting on the bread. You've given me salami every day this week."
"Not every day. One day was liver—"
"And you know I can't stand liverwurst. I couldn't eat it."
Art saw a change in his mother's shoulders where she stood at the counter, her back to them. After a minute she said, "You don't like bologna either, and you said peanut butter is for children. You wouldn't want egg salad because you have eggs for breakfast."
"It's OK, I'll get lunch at the café."
Mom rinsed the knife she'd been using for mustard and let it clatter into the sink. She took off her glasses and rinsed them, too. Dad doubled a piece of toast and dragged it across his plate to sop up the yellow goo that turned Art's stomach.
His mother said, "Gary, didn't we agree you'd take your lunch to save money? Are you ashamed to carry a brown bag?"
Art's father cleared his throat in the way that said he was being patient. After a long moment and another slurp of coffee, he said in a low voice, "The problem is the same old thing too many times. Kills the appetite. As hard as I work, I need a good lunch."
"Oh yes, I know you work hard, and I'm sorry if all I can give you is the same old thing that doesn't excite your appetite." Mom dried her glasses carefully and put them back on. Then she pulled the dish towel around her neck like a scarf as she gazed out the back window at the little yard.
Dad cleared his throat again, with an even greater demonstration of patience.
Having finished his Cheerios, Art sat small in his chair, hands in his lap, squinting at the grooves in the chrome edge of the table, which tended to wobble if he looked at them too long. He wanted another piece of toast with strawberry jam but he knew to keep quiet during arguments. Instead he took a mental ride on his trike, imagining the sidewalk scuffing his shoes, feeling wind catch his hair and cool his ears. He squeezed pretend handlebars and made rrmmm noises under his breath, the sound of wheels rushing on pavement.
Yet words kept tickling the outskirts of his consciousness. His fingers tightened, anticipating the blast. "S s sonofabitch!" it came, "I can't even eat breakfast without—" Art tried to ignore the slam of the fist on the table and the stomp of steps and bang of the front door, though the leftover milk in his cereal bowl rocked back and forth like waves in the bathtub. Rrmmmm, he hummed while his mother threw her towel in the sink and ran upstairs. Only a back part of his brain registered the sound of the bathroom door snapping shut.
After a while he got up to wander around the living room, pretending to steer his trike, but he kept whacking his knees on the coffee table. He tried looking at the table with one eye and then the other, watching it shift. When several minutes had passed he cracked open the front door, curving his neck to peer down the block. No sign of his father. Also no sign of the older kids who were out of school for the summer and sometimes teased Art about his hair, which his mother let grow too long.
He fetched the trike from the back porch, wheeled it across linoleum and rugs and thump-bumped down the stoop. Today, with both his eyes available again, the sunlight came piercingly bright, angling over flat rooftops and nicking off lampposts and cars and the trike's shiny red paint. The world seemed sharper and more glittery than he remembered.
Straddling the trike with a professional attitude, like a cowboy heading to work on his favorite mount, he pedaled downhill slowly, keeping under strict control at first. A slight breeze chilled his forehead while the sun cooked his cheek and the handlebars warmed to his touch.
In his crisp white shirt and dark-blue suit, Art's father walked down this hill to work every morning, along with the other fathers. Once he had taken Art along, beyond the houses and around a park, across a wide road with blaring traffic to a cluster of huge brick buildings with dusty windows, where they passed through tall glass doors to an echoing lobby and then into a room full of gray steel cabinets twice Art's height, with narrow corridors between. Left in the maze while his father went to talk to somebody, Art had panicked, frightened of the engineers in suits who barged through, so hurried and important. He knew they were important because they and his father made radar things for planes that soldiers used for fighting Commies in a place called Korea. Radar let them spy on things far away. He had seen pictures of those planes and soldiers in magazines though the radar was invisible.
Art was careful not to touch the cabinets. If the engineers thought he didn't belong here with all the secret radar stuff, they might lock him up, Art supposed. He was snuffling when his father found him.
"Artie? What's wrong? What's the matter with you?"
"I don't know," Art whispered. "I couldn't see where you went."
"I was just around the corner. I knew where you were all the time. I was keeping an eye on you." His blue eyes were indeed fixed on Art.
"But I have to go to the bathroom," Art whimpered, humiliated.
Dad laughed. "Oh that's it. Don't worry, we have bathrooms."
In the strange men's room with mirrors and high shiny urinals Art had trouble getting started, and when he came out his father was pacing around. Dad glanced at his watch and sighed.
Art had no interest in venturing that far from home again. Still, he could ride his trike down the entire block to the traffic light at the far corner, a manageable adventure. That was his goal today, but as he rode he got absorbed in the lines between the concrete squares. They came up one by one to whump under the wheels in hypnotic succession. Each crack was evil, a snake that wanted to grow bigger and bigger and destroy the sidewalk, or maybe all of New Jersey, but his trusty red trike squished each one beneath its front wheel and then bashed it again with two back wheels to make sure it was dead.
He went faster. Whumpity-whump-whump, deadity-dead-dead-dead. Like the brave soldiers he was slaughtering his foes, but it got harder to keep the snake-cracks from tipping him over. They were fighting back. "Watch out!" a woman's voice yelled as he zoomed past her stoop. She didn't understand the enemy at her own front door.
His wrists ached from the jarring, and a wide crack with ragged edges ran up and clobbered him. It jerked the front wheel one way while the back wheels skidded the other, wrenching his ankle and knee and scratching rubber off his sneaker. He ended up half tipped over.
Was the woman on the stoop still watching? Art's face burned. He supposed his father, too, could see, using the invisible radar from the high brick buildings. "I know where you are all the time," Dad said, "I'm keeping an eye on you." Art tried to sense the expression on his face. Was he worried about the crash? Or upset at Art's clumsiness? Or snuffing twice and sucking in his lips so they disappeared, the way he sometimes did when Art interrupted his concentration?
Art hitched his belt and bit his own lower lip. After straightening the trike he stole a glance up the block. The spiky sun hurt his eyes, but he was amazed to find he'd come almost two-thirds of the way down. The woman was gone, unless she was that blur getting into a car. A couple of other fuzzy grownup figures crossed the street, paying him no mind. He thought about going back, reminding himself he lived one-two-three from the corner. With the long strip of mottled gray concrete blazing at him, it seemed very far. But in the back of his mind he heard the fist on the kitchen table, the bathroom door clacking shut, and he decided he wasn't going home until lunch, or maybe tomorrow. His mother didn't even know he'd gone out.
He faced downhill again, defiantly, and let the trike coast. As soon as he picked up speed, though, he got terrified and scrunched both sneakers down on the sidewalk. He fingers shook on the handlebars. Water filled his left eye, the one the doctor said was weak. The big toe of his right foot smarted.
Yesterday he'd gone much faster, probably as fast as a bicycle or an airplane until he stopped to avoid an old lady with groceries. Today he was a coward, and the sun's glare made him shivery. He wanted to mash something, anything, to get rid of this helpless feeling.
Ahead he noticed a gap between the brick houses. Art knew from his mother that these were called rowhouses, meaning the whole line was connected. But this one spot, he'd seen yesterday, had an open space where a house ought to be, a swatch of dirt and weeds and strange other stuff. There he might find a slug or caterpillar to squish, so he walked his trike cautiously to the edge.
Clumps of grass grew to his chest, dangling brown fluff at the ends. Between them, little bushes poked up, mixed with white scraggly flowers and weeds that crawled out over the sidewalk. Half-hidden in one clump lay a stinky pile of dog-do. Way in the back of the lot was a red square thing. One day his mother had said, turning her lip, that this was a dirty neighborhood. She probably meant places like this, because the street itself didn't look dirtier than other streets he saw from the car.
Art wrinkled his nose and sneezed twice, three times, and the attack of hay fever left him wobbly. To boost his courage he recalled a book his mother had read him about a famous explorer in the wilds of Africa. Wilds must be something like this, except with tigers and lions in them, and an explorer wouldn't be stopped by allergies.
Parking the trike with the front wheel cocked so it wouldn't roll, he took a tentative step into the dirt. His mother wouldn't like him doing this in clean T-shirt and jeans. If he got into dog mess, it would be disgusting and she'd find out about it. Yet this thought prompted him to go farther, with large tiptoeing steps across the crumbly ground.
The weeds itched his hands and arms. A little ways in, he found an old car tire, graying and covered with skillions of dusty cracks like a spider's web. Scattered here and there were cigarette butts, bottles and cans, a mitten, a baseball with a torn cover, a doll with no arms. Art wondered if the green ball he'd misplaced months ago had rolled here.
To the right was a mound of twinkles. This proved to be glass—huge sheets, cracked and broken and stacked higher than Art's waist, with long slivers glinting in the sun. One time Art had seen a truck carrying mammoth glass plates, and this must be what happened if they fell off the truck. Were they supposed to go in windows? Somebody must have gotten mad about the accident, cussing like Art's father. The pieces were nice in their own way, though. Slick on their edges, gleaming along their flat tops. They sent up sparks in the sun, and when he moved closer their reflections danced around his shadow. His right eye gave them flickers of blue and green, while his left eye softened them to gray tinsel.
With a nervous glance back at his trike, he moved on. Was his father's radar eye still on him? Bits of seed and stuff clung to his socks and pricked him through the cotton. He was getting hot and his forehead sticky, but as an explorer he needed to investigate the red thing at the rear of the lot.
It turned out to be a table lying on its side. Like the one in Art's kitchen, it had a Formica top and metal legs. It was bigger, though, and red instead of pink, with deep scratches in the Formica like somebody had whacked it with a knife. Weeds curled around it and bird poop splattered one leg that was bent. It upset him to think a family would treat a table this way.
He thought of the broken chair from his house. Often Art woke at night to the sound of his parents' arguments, Dad yelling bad words and Mom snapping back, and sometimes there were crashes. One morning he'd seen a wooden chair splintered in the trash can. Could it have come here to live with the wrecked table and all the other stuff nobody wanted?
As he peered around for pieces of a chair, stepping carefully, his left foot hit a slippery lump and skidded. He looked down between his legs at a mush of meat and feathers with white things wiggling in it and dark bones sticking out.
An awful taste, Cheerios and milk and throw-up, rose in his throat. He yanked his feet away and bent over, grabbing his stomach. Nothing came up but the taste. He scraped his left sole in the dirt seven times, and then once more and hurried away.
He'd crossed most of the lot by the time he realized he should kill those wiggly things. Get a stick and mash them into the ground till ooze came out. Yet he couldn't bring himself to go back. He shuddered. Maybe another day.
Angling toward his trike, he passed near the pile of broken glass, and it occurred to him that he could climb up and spy around the lot, spot any other dead creatures or hidden plunder or his lost ball. He knew his hands would get cut if he touched the glass, but he could walk carefully on top. Most of the pieces were flat and the heap was sloped like someone had wanted to make a path.
If he didn't climb this glass pile, he would go home. That helped him decide.
He took one step at a time, spreading his feet for balance. It turned out to be easy; he couldn't feel a single sharp edge through his sneakers. The glass didn't crunch under his weight, it just creaked a little, and small pieces tinkled and flashed down the slope.
Near the top, higher than he'd imagined, he was amazed at how different things looked. The Formica table seemed smaller, less important. Turning, he could see the sidewalk and his tiny trike by the edge. The sunlight dazzled him, poking right through his eyes into his head. From here he was king of the wilds of Cameron Street, looking down on the snakes and worms and other enemies. For an instant, too, he was a soldier capturing a hill in Korea, like a picture he remembered from a magazine. But Art was a lone conqueror. Nobody passed on the street, and when he thought again about the radar, he decided that it probably couldn't see through the brick of the surrounding houses.
Then something happened, a shifting underfoot, and he sat down suddenly. He kept his hands away from the glass and he wasn't hurt, but it was embarrassing and he was trying to figure out how to act like he'd sat down on purpose when he noticed the dark spot like spilled coke on the right leg of his jeans. He didn't know he'd gotten them so dirty.
As he looked the dark area grew bigger, and when he pulled up the pant leg he saw a huge red mess on his skin. It bewildered him. Some of the glass must have sneaked up there in spite of his being so careful.
He knew he had to get home now. On his seat he inched down the pile, trying to keep both hands and both legs in the air, which was impossible. Now that he knew about it, the wound started to pulse, and he wanted to cry but at the same time his head didn't believe this was happening to him. He watched some other kid scooting on his backside over shattered glass in the midst of weeds and trash.
Once on solid ground, he stepped forward with his left foot, dragging the bloody leg after, abandoning his trike. The long block was steep as a stairway. He heard two women talking across the street but couldn't see them because both eyes had gone blurry and tingly, which must be punishment for not wearing his eye patch.
It took hours and hours, sweating in the hot sun, the leg throbbing worse and worse, until he came to the right stoop, struggling to count one-two-three from the corner. The front door didn't open and he had a panicky thought that his mother had gone away and locked it or he'd counted wrong but it turned out the door was only sticking. "Mom?" he called weakly as he limped into the living room. "Mom?"
He heard music from the kitchen, so he dragged himself there, beginning to cry now. Mom was sitting at the table that was so much like the one in the empty lot, bent over with her forehead on her hands, next to a cup of coffee and pack of cigarettes, with her glasses propped clumsily on the ashtray. Her shoulder blades poked humps in her blouse. On the radio a woman sang,
I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz."Mom?" he said again. He wiped his eyes and stared at her. She didn't notice him, he thought, because he'd changed into someone else, so he tugged on her sleeve.
"Art? What is it? Where have you been?"
"Outside. I think I cut my leg."
Slowly like the music, which was sad and lovely, she lifted the coffee cup and gazed at him over it. With her other hand she picked up a cigarette from the ashtray and put it down again. Her brown eyes were purple around the edges and her jawbone stiff. Her cheeks looked like she'd been sucking on them. She put her glasses on and looked at him closer. "You think you cut yourself? Where?"
He showed her. For a minute the coffee cup hung in the air between them like it was annoyed at the interruption, but then she was grabbing him and making him sit down and running to the bathroom for a washcloth and bandages. She knelt and cleaned the wound, which made it hurt worse, stinging and pounding from inside with every beat of his heart; then she had him lie on the floor and prop the leg on a dishpan. "How did you do this?" she demanded, and he made up a partial lie about tripping and falling on some glass, though his head was feeling queer and his voice came from another room.
"It's awfully wide," she mumbled. "Maybe we should go to the hospital. I don't see any glass in—I don't know what—does it need stitches?—where did you say you . . . ?" Her brown hair clung to the side of her face and she tried to brush it back with her elbow because she had blood on her hands. She used the tiny bottle of red medicine that always burned on scrapes, and this time it was like fire on his leg. It ran together with the blood and he screamed. "I know it hurts, Arthur, you'll just have to— Keep still, please! Do you feel lightheaded or anything?"
He didn't know what that word meant but he blinked to say no. His head was not attached, actually. Nothing was attached, not his arms or legs either, but he couldn't escape from the burning. He tried closing his eyes, gritting his teeth, and the pain followed him. When he opened his eyes everything fuzzed in the deep pink flame.
"You have to keep off your feet. When your father gets home— Why did you ever do something so—?"
A man on the radio crooned,
My heart cries for youas she tugged under his shoulders to lift him. She wasn't very strong so he had to assist in dragging his leg upstairs to his bed, where she elevated it on pillows.
The big wrap of gauze and tape made his calf twice the normal size. It was scary, especially when a blotch of red soaked through. He couldn't look to see if the blotch grew bigger. It now felt like the white wiggly things from the empty lot were swelling and creeping inside his leg. His hair roasted against the pillowcase. When his mother came back, he would be dead.
He started running through fields of tall jagged weeds that were on fire, so he had to run faster and faster to stay ahead. Luckily he could run without touching the ground, like coasting on the wind, and eventually he sped beyond the flames. The air cooled. The light in the sky grew clean and fresh and flowed like water through his head. Oh, this is what lightheaded means, he thought.
His father was standing over the bed. "I tried to wrap it tight, keep pressure on it, but it's so wide it might need stitches." Her voice came from a separate planet.
Dad would use the invisible radar to spy at the wound and find out the whole story. Sonofabitch, he'd yell, and slam something with his fist. Art's fingers trembled under the sheets. But his father's mouth merely said, "I can't see anything the way you've got it bandaged. It happened when—over eight hours ago? I suppose if the bleeding stopped it's all right. How did he get into broken glass anyway? You let him wander around?"
Relief turned into a twisting hollow thing in Art's chest. He didn't speak up, though, to say the accident wasn't Mom's fault. Instead his lids drooped and he didn't listen anymore. He felt chilly now. The voices went out of the room, squabbling.
Some days later, limping around, he noticed that his trike had returned to the back porch. Its red paint reminded him of blood and mercurochrome and scratched red Formica. But it had been a different boy who rode that trike. He'd been replaced by this kid whose limbs weren't really attached and whose new head often felt like it was floating, full of the clear empty light.
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