The day after school ended, Carol Gerber's mom crammed her Ford Estate Wagon with kids and took them to Savin Rock, a seaside amusement park twenty miles from Harwich. Anita Gerber had done this three years running, which made it an ancient tradition to Bobby, S-J, Carol, Carol's little brother, and Carol's girlfriends, Yvonne, Angie, and Tina. Neither Sully- John nor Bobby would have gone anywhere with three girls on his own, but since they were together it was okay. Besides, the lure of Savin Rock was too strong to resist. It would still be too cold to do much more than wade in the ocean, but they could goof on the beach and all the rides would be open—the midway, too. The year before, Sully-John had knocked down three pyramids of wooden milk-bottles with just three baseballs, winning his mother a large pink teddy bear which still held pride of place on top of the Sullivan TV. Today S-J wanted to win it a mate.
For Bobby, just getting away from Harwich for a little while was an attraction. He had seen nothing suspicious since the star and the moon scribbled next to the hopscotch grid, but Ted gave him a bad scare while Bobby was reading him the Saturday newspaper, and hard on the heels of that came an ugly argument with his mother.
The thing with Ted happened while Bobby was reading an opinion piece scoffing at the idea that Mickey Mantle would ever break Babe Ruth's home-run record. He didn't have the stamina or the dedication, the columnist insisted. “Above all, the character of this man is wrong,” Bobby read. “The so-called Mick is more interested in night-clubbing than—”
Ted had blanked out again. Bobby knew this, felt it somehow, even before he looked up from the newspaper. Ted was staring emptily out his window toward Colony Street and the hoarse, monotonous barking of Mrs O'Hara's dog. It was the second time he'd done it this morning, but the first lapse had lasted only a few seconds (Ted bent into the open refrigerator, eyes wide in the frosty light, not moving . . . then giving a jerk, a little shake, and reaching for the orange juice). This time he was totally gone. Wigsville, man, as Kookie might have said on 77 Sunset Strip. Bobby rattled the newspaper to see if he could wake him up that way.
“Ted? Are you all r—” With sudden dawning horror, Bobby realized something was wrong with the pupils of Ted's eyes. They were growing and shrinking in his face as Bobby watched. It was as if Ted were plunging rapidly in and out of some abysmally black place . . .
and yet all he was doing was sitting there in the sunshine.
A cigarette was burning in the ashtray, except it was now nothing but stub and ash.
Looking at it, Bobby realized Ted must have been out for almost the entire article on Mantle.
And that thing his eyes were doing, the pupils swelling and contracting, swelling and contracting . . .
He's having an epilepsy attack or something. God, don't they sometimes swallow their tongues when that happens?
Ted's tongue looked to be where it belonged, but his eyes . . . his eyes—'Ted! Ted, wake up!”
Bobby was around to Ted's side of the table before he was even aware he was moving. He grabbed Ted by the shoulders and shook him. It was like shaking a piece of wood carved to look like a man. Under his cotton pullover shirt Ted's shoulders were hard and scrawny and unyielding.
“Wake up! Wake up!”
“They draw west now.” Ted continued to look out the window with his strange moving eyes. “That's good. But they may be back. They . . .”
Bobby stood with his hands on Ted's shoulders, frightened and awestruck. Ted's pupils expanded and contracted like a heartbeat you could see. “Ted, what's wrong?”
“I must be very still. I must be a hare in the bush. They may pass by. There will be water if God wills it, and they may pass by. All things serve . . .”
“Serve what?” Almost whispering now. “Serve what, Ted?”
“All things serve the Beam,” Ted said, and suddenly his hands closed over Bobby's. They were very cold, those hands, and for a moment Bobby felt nightmarish, fainting terror. It was like being gripped by a corpse that could only move its hands and the pupils of its dead eyes.
Then Ted was looking at him, and although his eyes were frightened, they were almost normal again. Not dead at all.
Bobby pulled his hands free and put them around Ted's neck. He hugged him, and as he did Bobby heard a bell tolling in his head—this was very brief but very clear. He could even hear the pitch of the bell shift, the way the pitch of a train-whistle did if the train was moving fast. It was as if something inside his head were passing at high speed. He heard a rattle of hooves on some hard surface. Wood? No, metal. He smelled dust, dry and thundery in his nose. At the same moment the backs of his eyes began to itch.
“Shhh!” Ted's breath in his ear was as dry as the smell of that dust, and somehow intimate.
His hands were on Bobby's back, cupping his shoulderblades and holding him still. “Not a word! Not a thought. Except . . . baseball! Yes, baseball, if you like!”
Bobby thought of Maury Wills getting his lead off first, a walking lead, measuring three steps . . . then four . . . Wills bent over at the waist, hands dangling, heels raised slightly off the dirt, he can go either way, it depends on what the pitcher does . . . and when the pitcher goes to the plate Wills heads for second in an explosion of speed and dust and—Gone. Everything was gone. No bell ringing in his head, no sound of hooves, no smell of dust. No itching behind his eyes, either. Had that itching really ever been there? Or had he just made it up because Ted's eyes were scaring him?
“Bobby,” Ted said, again directly into Bobby's ear. The movement of Ted's lips against his skin made him shiver. Then: “Good God, what am I doing?”
He pushed Bobby away, gently but firmly. His face looked dismayed and a little too pale, but his eyes were back to normal, his pupils holding steady. For the moment that was all Bobby cared about. He felt strange, though—muzzy in the head, as if he'd just woken up from a heavy nap. At the same time the world looked amazingly brilliant, every line and shape perfectly denned.
“Shazam,” Bobby said, and laughed shakily. “What just happened?”
“Nothing to concern you.” Ted reached for his cigarette and seemed surprised to see only a tiny smoldering scrap left in the groove where he had set it. He brushed it into the ashtray with his knuckle. T went off again, didn't I?”
“Yeah, way off. I was scared. I thought you were having an epilepsy fit or somediing. Your eyes—”
“It's not epilepsy,” Ted said. “And it's not dangerous. But if it happens again, it would be best if you didn't touch me.”
Ted lit a fresh cigarette. “Just because. Will you promise?”
“Okay. What's the Beam?”
Ted gazed at him sharply. “I spoke of the Beam?”
“You said "All things serve the Beam." I think that was it.”
“Perhaps sometime I'll tell you, but not today. Today you're going to the beach, aren't you?”
Bobby jumped, startled. He looked at Ted's clock and saw it was almost nine o'clock.
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe I ought to start getting ready. I could finish reading you the paper when I get back.”
“Yes, good. A fine idea. I have some letters to write.”
No you don't, you just want to get rid of me before I ask any other questions you don't want to answer.
But if that was what Ted was doing it was all right. As Liz Garfield so often said, Bobby had his own fish to fry. Still, as he reached the door to Ted's room, the thought of the red scrap of cloth hanging from the TV aerial and the crescent moon and the star next to the hopscotch grid made him turn reluctantly back.
“Ted, there's something—”
“The low men, yes, I know.” Ted smiled. “For now don't trouble yourself about them, Bobby. For now all is well. They aren't moving this way or even looking this way.”
“They draw west,” Bobby said.
Ted looked at him through a scurf of rising cigarette smoke, his blue eyes steady. “Yes,” he said, “and with luck they'll stay west. Seattle would be fine with me. Have a good time at the seaside, Bobby.”
“But I saw—”
“Perhaps you saw only shadows. In any case, this isn't the time to talk. Just remember what I said—if I should go blank like that again, just sit and wait for it to pass. If I should reach for you, stand back. If I should get up, tell me to sit down. In that state I will do as you say.
It's like being hypnotized.”
“Why do you—”
“No more questions, Bobby. Please.”
“You're okay? Really okay?”
“In the pink. Now go. Enjoy your day.”
Bobby hurried downstairs, again struck by how sharp everything seemed to be: the brilliance of the light slanting through the window on the second-floor landing, a ladybug crawling around the lip of an empty milk-bottle outside the door of the Proskys” apartment, a sweet high humming in his ears that was like the voice of the day—the first Saturday of summer vacation.
Back in the apartment, Bobby grabbed his toy cars and trucks from various stashes under his bed and at the back of his closet. A couple of these—a Matchbox Ford and a blue metal dumptruck Mr Biderman had sent home with his mom a few days after Bobby's birthday—were pretty cool, but he had nothing to rival Sully's gasoline tanker or yellow Tonka bulldozer. The “dozer was especially good to play with in the sand. Bobby was looking forward to at least an hour's serious roadbuilding while the waves broke nearby and his skin pinkened in the bright coastal sunshine. It occurred to him that he hadn't gathered up his trucks like this since sometime last winter, when he and S-J had spent a happy post-blizzard Saturday afternoon making a road-system in the fresh snow down Commonwealth Park. He was old now, eleven, almost too old for stuff like this. There was something sad about that idea, but he didn't have to be sad right now, not if he didn't want to. His toy-truck days might be fast approaching their end, but that end wouldn't be today. Nope, not today.
His mother packed him a lunch for the trip, but she wouldn't give him any money when he asked—not even a nickel for one of the private changing-stalls which lined the ocean side of the midway. And almost before Bobby realized it was happening, they were having what he most dreaded: an argument about money.
“Fifty cents'd be enough,” Bobby said. He heard the baby-whine in his voice, hated it, couldn't stop it. “Just half a rock. Come on, Mom, what do you say? Be a sport.”
She lit a Kool, striking the match so hard it made a snapping sound, and looked at him through the smoke with her eyes narrowed. “You're earning your own money now, Bob. Most people pay three cents for the paper and you get paid for reading it. A dollar a week! My God! When I was a girl—”
“Mom, that money's for my bike! You know that.”
She had turned to the mirror, frowning and fussing at the shoulders of her blouse—Mr Biderman had asked her to come in for a few hours even though it was Saturday. Now she turned back, cigarette still clamped between her lips, and bent her frown on him.
“You're still asking me to buy you that bike, aren't you? Still. I told you I couldn't afford it but you're still asking.”
“No, I'm not! I'm not either!” Bobby's eyes were wide with anger and hurt. “Just a lousy half a rock for the—”
“Half a buck here, two bits there—it all adds up, you know. What you want is for me to buy you that bike by handing you the money for everything else. Then you don't have to give up any of the other things you want.”
“That's not fair!”
He knew what she would say before she said it, even had time to think that he had walked right into that one. “Life's not fair, Bobby-O.” Turning back to the mirror for one final pluck at the ghost of a slip-strap hovering beneath the right shoulder of her blouse.
“A nickel for the changing-room?” Bobby asked. “Couldn't you at least—”
“Yes, probably, oh, I imagine,” she said, clipping off each word. She usually put rouge on her cheeks before going to work, but not all the color on her face this morning came out of a powderbox, and Bobby, angry as he was, knew he'd better be careful. If he lost his temper the way she was capable of losing hers, he'd be here in the hot empty apartment all day, forbidden to so much as step out into the hall.
His mother snatched her purse off the table by the end of the couch, butted out her cigarette hard enough to split the filter, then turned and looked at him. “If I said to you, "Gee, we can't eat this week because I saw a pair of shoes at Hunsicker's that I just had to have," what would you think?”
I'd think you were a liar, Bobby thought. And I'd say if you're so broke, Mom, what about the Sears catalogue on the top shelf of your closet? The one with the dollar bills and the fivedollar bills—even a ten or two—taped to the underwear pages in the middle? What about the blue pitcher in the kitchen dish cabinet, the one tucked all the way in the back comer behind the gravy boat with the crack in it, the blue pitcher where you put your spare quarters, where you've been putting them ever since my father died? And when the pitcher's full you roll the quarters and take them to the bank and get bills, and the bills go into the catalogue, don't they? The bills get taped to the underwear pages of the wishbook.
But he said none of this, only looked down at his sneakers with his eyes burning.
“I have to make choices,” she said. “And if you're old enough to work, sonnyboy of mine, you'll have to make them, too. Do you think I like telling you no?”
Not exactly, Bobby thought, looking at his sneakers and biting at his lip, which wanted to loosen up and start letting out a bunch of blubbery baby-sounds. Mot exactly, but I don't think you really mind it, either.
“If we were the Gotrocks, I'd give you five dollars to spend at the beach—hell, ten! You wouldn't have to borrow from your bike-jar if you wanted to take your little girlfriend on the Loop-the-Loop—”
She's not my girlfriend! Bobby screamed at his mother inside his head. SHE is NOT MY LITTLE GIRLFRIEND!
“—or the Indian Railroad. But of course if we were the Gotrocks, you wouldn't need to save for a bike in the first place, would you?” Her voice rising, rising. Whatever had been troubling her over the last few months threatening to come rushing out, foaming like sodapop and biting like acid. “I don't know if you ever noticed this, but your father didn't exactly leave us well off, and I'm doing the best I can. I feed you, I put clothes on your back, I paid for you to go to Sterling House this summer and play baseball while I push paper in that hot office.
You got invited to go to the beach with the other kids, I'm very happy for you, but how you finance your day off is your business. If you want to ride the rides, take some of the money you've got in that jar and ride them. If you don't, just play on the beach or stay home. Makes no difference to me. I just want you to stop whining. I hate it when you whine. It's like . . .”
She stopped, sighed, opened her purse, took out her cigarettes. “I hate it when you whine,” she repeated.
It's like your father. That was what she had stopped herself from saying.
“So what's the story, morning-glory?” she asked. “Are you finished?”
Bobby stood silent, cheeks burning, eyes burning, looking down at his sneakers and focusing all his will on not blubbering. At this point a single choked sob might be enough to get him grounded for the day; she was really mad, only looking for a reason to do it. And blubbering wasn't the only danger. He wanted to scream at her that he'd rather be like his father than like her, a skinflinty old cheapskate like her, not good for even a lousy nickel, and so what if the late not-so-great Randall Garfield hadn't left them well off? Why did she always make it sound like that was his fault? Who had married him?
“You sure, Bobby-O? No more smartass comebacks?” The most dangerous sound of all had come into her voice—a kind of brittle brightness. It sounded like good humor if you didn't know her.
Bobby looked at his sneakers and said nothing. Kept all the blubbering and all the angry words locked in his throat and said nothing. Silence spun out between them. He could smell her cigarette and all of last night's cigarettes behind this one, and those smoked on all the other nights when she didn't so much look at the TV as through it, waiting for the phone to ring.
“All right, I guess we've got ourselves straight,” she said after giving him fifteen seconds or so to open his mouth and stick his big fat foot in it. “Have a nice day, Bobby.” She went out without kissing him.
Bobby went to the open window (tears were running down his face now, but he hardly noticed them), drew aside the curtain, and watched her head toward Commonwealth, high heels tapping. He took a couple of big, watery breaths and then went into the kitchen. He looked across it at the cupboard where the blue pitcher hid behind the gravy boat. He could take some money out of it, she didn't keep any exact count of how much was in there and she'd never miss three or four quarters, but he wouldn't. Spending it would be joyless. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he did; had known it even at nine, when he first discovered the pitcher of change hidden there. So, with feelings of regret rather than righteousness, he went into his bedroom and looked at the Bike Fund jar instead.
It occurred to him that she was right—he could take a little of his saved dough to spend at Savin Rock. It might take him an extra month to accumulate the price of the Schwinn, but at least spending this money would feel all right. And there was something else, as well. If he refused to take any money out of the jar, to do anything but hoard it and save it, he'd be like her.
That decided the matter. Bobby fished five dimes out of the Bike Fund, put them in his pocket, put a Kleenex on top of them to keep them from bouncing out if he ran somewhere, then finished collecting his stuff for the beach. Soon he was whistling, and Ted came downstairs to see what he was up to.
“Are you off, Captain Garfield?”
Bobby nodded. “Savin Rock's a pretty cool place. Rides and stuff, you know?”
“Indeed I do. Have a good time, Bobby, and don't fall out of anything.”
Bobby started for the door, then looked back at Ted, who was standing on the bottom step of the stairs in his slippers. “Why don't you come out and sit on the porch?” Bobby asked. “It's gonna be hot in the house, I bet.”
Ted smiled. “Perhaps. But I think I'll stay in.”
“Fine, Bobby. I'm fine.”
As he crossed to the Gerbers” side of Broad Street, Bobby realized he felt sorry for Ted, hiding up in his hot room for no reason. And it had to be for no reason, didn't it? Sure it did.
Even if there were low men out there, cruising around someplace (in the west, he thought, they draw west), what could they want of an old retired guy like Ted Brautigan?
At first the quarrel with his mother weighed him down a little (Mrs Gerber's pudgy, pretty friend Rionda Hewson accused him of being “in a brown study,” whatever that was, then began tickling him up the sides and in the armpits until Bobby laughed in self-defense), but after they had been on the beach a little while he began to feel better, more himself.
Although it was still early in the season, Savin Rock was full speed ahead—the merry-goround turning, the Wild Mouse roaring, the little kids screaming, tinny rock and roll pouring from the speakers outside the funhouse, the barkers hollering from their booths. Sully-John didn't get the teddy bear he wanted, knocking over only two of the last three milk-bottles (Rionda claimed some of them had special weights in the bottom to keep them from going over unless you whacked them just right), but the guy in the baseball-toss booth awarded him a pretty neat prize anyway—a goofy-looking anteater covered with yellow plush. S-J impulsively gave it to Carol's morn. Anita laughed and hugged him and told him he was the best kid in the world, if he was fifteen years older she'd commit bigamy and marry him.
Sully-John blushed until he was purple.
Bobby tried the ringtoss and missed with all three throws. At the Shooting Gallery he had better luck, breaking two plates and winning a small stuffed bear. He gave it to Ian-the-Snot, who had actually been good for a change—hadn't thrown any tantrums, wet his pants, or tried to sock either Sully or Bobby in the nuts. Ian hugged the bear and looked at Bobby as if Bobby were God.
“It's great and he loves it,” Anita said, “but don't you want to take it home to your mother?”
“Nah—she's not much on stuff like that. I'd like to win her a bottle of perfume, though.”
He and Sully-John dared each other to go on the Wild Mouse and finally went together, howling deliriously as their car plunged into each dip, simultaneously sure they were going to live forever and die immediately. They went on the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Krazy Kups. Down to his last fifteen cents, Bobby found himself on the Ferris wheel with Carol. Their car stopped at the top, rocking slightly, making him feel funny in his stomach. To his left the Atlantic stepped shoreward in a series of white-topped waves. The beach was just as white, the ocean an impossible shade of deep blue. Sunlight ran across it like silk. Below them was the midway. Rising up from the speakers came the sound of Freddy Cannon: she comes from Tallahassee, she's got a hi-fi chassis.
“Everything down there looks so little,” Carol said. Her voice was also little—uncharacteristically so.
“Don't be scared, we're safe as can be. The Ferris wheel would be a kiddie-ride if it didn't go so high.”
Carol was in many ways the oldest of the three of them—tough and sure of herself, as on the day she had made S-J carry her books for swearing—but now her face had almost become a baby's face again: round, a little bit pale, dominated by a pair of alarmed blue eyes.
Without thinking Bobby leaned over, put his mouth on hers, and kissed her. When he drew back, her eyes were wider than ever.
“Safe as can be,” he said, and grinned.
“Do it again!” It was her first real kiss, she had gotten it at Savin Rock on the first Saturday of summer vacation, and she hadn't been paying attention. That was what she was thinking, that was why she wanted him to do it again.
“I better not,” Bobby said. Although . . . up here who was there to see and call him a sissy?
“I dare you, and don't say dares go first.”
“Will you tell?”
“No, swear to God. Go on, hurry up! Before we go down!”
So he kissed her again. Her lips were smooth and closed, hot with the sun. Then the wheel began to move and he stopped. For just a moment Carol laid her head against his chest.
“Thank you, Bobby,” she said. “That was nice as could be.”
“I thought so, too.”
They drew apart from each other a little, and when their car stopped and the tattooed attendant swung the safety bar up, Bobby got out and ran without looking back at her to where S-J was standing. Yet he knew already that kissing Carol at the top of the Ferris wheel was going to be the best part of the day. It was his first real kiss, too, and Bobby never forgot the feel of her lips pressing on his—dry and smooth and warmed by the sun. It was the kiss by which all the others of his life would be judged and found wanting.
Around three o'clock, Mrs Gerber told them to start gathering their things; it was time to go home. Carol gave a token “Aw, Mom,” and then started picking stuff up. Her girlfriends helped; even Ian helped a little (refusing even as he fetched and carried to let go of the sandmatted bear). Bobby had half-expected Carol to tag after him for the rest of the day, and he had been sure she'd tell her girlfriends about kissing on the Ferris wheel (he would know she had when he saw them in a little knot, giggling with their hands over their mouths, looking at him with their merry knowing eyes), but she had done neither. Several times he had caught her looking at him, though, and several times he had caught himself sneaking glances at her.
He kept remembering her eyes up there. How big and worried they had been. And he had kissed her, just like that. Bingo.
Bobby and Sully toted most of the beachbags. “Good mules! Giddyap!” Rionda cried, laughing, as they mounted the steps between the beach and the boardwalk. She was lobster red under the cold-cream she had smeared over her face and shoulders, and she moaned to Anita Gerber that she wouldn't sleep a wink that night, that if the sunburn didn't keep her awake, the midway food would.
“Well, you didn't have to eat four wieners and two doughboys,” Mrs Gerber said, sounding more irritated than Bobby had ever heard her—she was tired, he reckoned. He felt a little dazed by the sun himself. His back prickled with sunburn and he had sand in his socks. The beachbags with which he was festooned swung and bounced against each other.
“But amusement park food's so gooood,” Rionda protested in a sad voice. Bobby laughed.
He couldn't help it.
They walked slowly along the midway toward the dirt parking lot, paying no attention to the rides now. The barkers looked at them, then looked past them for fresh blood. Folks loaded down and trudging back to the parking lot were, by and large, lost causes.
At the very end of the midway, on the left, was a skinny man wearing baggy blue Bermuda shorts, a strap-style undershirt, and a bowler hat. The bowler was old and faded, but cocked at a rakish angle. Also, there was a plastic sunflower stuck in the brim. He was a funny guy, and the girls finally got their chance to put their hands over their mouths and giggle.
He looked at them with the air of a man who has been giggled at by experts and smiled back. This made Carol and her friends giggle harder. The man in the bowler hat, still smiling, spread his hands above the makeshift table behind which he was standing—a slab of fiberboard on two bright orange sawhorses. On the fiberboard were three redbacked Bicycle cards. He turned them over with quick, graceful gestures. His fingers were long and perfectly white, Bobby saw—not a bit of sun-color on them.
The card in the middle was the queen of hearts. The man in the bowler picked it up, showed it to them, walked it dextrously back and forth between his fingers. “Find the lady in red, cherchez la femme rouge, that's what it's all about and all you have to do,” he said. “It's easy as can beezy, easy-Japaneezy, easy as knitting kitten-britches.” He beckoned Yvonne Loving. “Come on over here, dollface, and show em how it's done.”
Yvonne, still giggling and blushing to the roots of her black hair, shrank back against Rionda and murmured that she had no more money for games, it was all spent.
“Not a problem,” the man in the bowler hat said. “It's just a demonstration, dollface—I want your mom and her pretty friend to see how easy it is.”
“Neither one's my mom,” Yvonne said, but she stepped forward.
“We really ought to get going if we're going to beat the traffic, Ewie,” Mrs Gerber said.
“No, wait a minute, this is fun,” Rionda said. “It's three-card monte. Looks easy, just like he says, but if you're not careful you start chasing and go home dead broke.”
The man in the bowler gave her a reproachful look, then a broad and engaging grin. It was the grin of a low man, Bobby thought suddenly. Not one of those Ted was afraid of, but a low man, just the same.
“It's obvious to me,” said the man in the bowler, “that at some point in your past you have been the victim of a scoundrel. Although how anyone could be cruel enough to mistreat such a beautiful classy dame is beyond my ability to comprehend.”
The beautiful classy dame—five-five or so, two hundred pounds or so, shoulders and face slathered with Pond's—laughed happily. “Stow the guff and show the child how it works.
And are you really telling me this is legal?”
The man behind the table tossed his head back and also laughed. “At the ends of the midway everything's legal until they catch you and throw you out . . . as I think you probably know. Now . . . what's your name, dollface?”
“Yvonne,” she said in a voice Bobby could barely hear. Beside him, Sully-John was watching with great interest. “Sometimes folks call me Evvie.”
“Okay, Evvie, look right here, pretty baby. What do you see? Tell me their names—I know you can, a smart kid like you—and point when you tell. Don't be afraid to touch, either. There's nothing crooked here.”
“This one on the end is the jack . . . this one on the other end is the king . . . and this is the queen. She's in the middle.”
“That's it, dollface. In the cards as in life, there is so often a woman between two men.
That's their power, and in another five or six years you'll find it out for yourself.” His voice had fallen into a low, almost hypnotic chanting. “Now watch closely and never take your eyes from the cards.” He turned them over so their backs showed. “Now, dollface, where's the queen?”
Yvonne Loving pointed at the red back in the middle.
“Is she right?” the man in the bowler asked the little party gathered around his table.
“So far,” Rionda said, and laughed so hard her uncorseted belly jiggled under her sundress.
Smiling at her laughter, the low man in the bowler hat flicked one corner of the middle card, showing the red queen. “One hundred per cent keerect, sweetheart, so far so good. Now watch! Watch close! It's a race between your eye and my hand! Which will win? That's the question of the day!”
He began to scramble the three cards rapidly about on his plank table, chanting as he did so.
“Up and down, all around, in and out, all about, to and fro, watch em go, now they're back, they're side by side, so tell me, dollface, where's she hide?”
As Yvonne studied the three cards, which were indeed once more lined up side by side, Sully leaned close to Bobby's ear and said, “You don't even have to watch him mix them around. The queen's got a bent corner. Do you see it?”
Bobby nodded, and thought Good girl when Yvonne pointed hesitantly to the card on the far left—the one with the bent corner. The man in the bowler turned it over and revealed the queen of hearts.
“Good job!” he said. “You've a sharp eye, dollface, a sharp eye indeed.”
“Thank you,” Yvonne said, blushing and looking almost as happy as Carol had looked when Bobby kissed her.
“If you'd bet me a dime on that go, I'd be giving you back twenty cents right now,” the man in the bowler hat said. “Why, you ask? Because it's Saturday, and I call Saturday Twoferday!
Now would one of you ladies like to risk a dime in a race between your young eyes and my tired old hands? You can tell your husbands—lucky fellas they are to have you, too, may I say—that Mr Herb McQuown, the Monte Man at Savin Rock, paid for your day's parking.
Or what about a quarter? Point out the queen of hearts and I give you back fifty cents.”
“Half a rock, yeah!” Sully-John said. “I got a quarter, Mister, and you're on.”
“Johnny, it's gambling,” Carol's mother said doubtfully. “I don't really think I should allow—”
“Go on, let the kid learn a lesson,” Rionda said. “Besides, the guy may let him win. Suck the rest of us in.” She made no effort to lower her voice, but the man in the bowler—Mr McQuown—only looked at her and smiled. Then he returned his attention to S-J.
“Let's see your money, kid—come on, pony up.”
Sully-John handed over his quarter. McQuown raised it into the afternoon sunlight for a moment, one eye closed.
“Yeh, looks like a good “un to me,” he said, and planked it down on the board to the left of the three-card lineup. He looked in both directions—for cops, maybe—then tipped the cynically smiling Rionda a wink before turning his attention back to Sully-John. “What's your name, fella?”
McQuown widened his eyes and tipped his bowler to the other side of his head, making the plastic sunflower nod and bend comically. “A name of note! You know what I refer to?”
“Sure. Someday maybe I'll be a fighter, too,” S-J said. He hooked a left and then a right at the air over McQuown's makeshift table. Pow, pow!”
“Pow-pow indeed,” said McQuown. “And how's your eyes, Master Sullivan?”
“Then get them ready, because the race is on! Yes it is! Your eyes against my hands! Up and down, all around, where'd she go, I don't know.” The cards, which had moved much faster this time, slowed to a stop.
Sully started to point, then drew his hand back, frowning. Now there were two cards with little folds in the corner. Sully looked up at McQuown, whose arms were folded across his dingy undershirt. McQuown was smiling. “Take your time, son,” he said. “The morning was whizbang, but it's been a slow afternoon.”
Men who think hats with feathers in the brims are sophisticated, Bobby remembered Ted saying. The sort of men who'd shoot craps in an alley and pass around a bottle of liquor in a paper bag during the game. McQuown had a funny plastic flower in his hat instead of a feather, and there was no bottle in evidence . . . but there was one in his pocket. A little one.
Bobby was sure of it. And toward the end of the day, as business wound down and totally sharp hand-eye coordination became less of a priority to him, McQuown would take more and more frequent nips from it.
Sully pointed to the card on the far right. No, S-J, Bobby thought, and when McQuown turned that card up, it was the king of spades. McQuown turned up the card on the far left and showed the jack of clubs. The queen was back in the middle. “Sorry, son, a little slow that time, it ain't no crime. Want to try again now that you're warmed up?”
“Gee, I . . . that was the last of my dough.” Sully-John looked crestfallen.
Just as well for you, kid,” Rionda said. “He'd take you for everything you own and leave you standing here in your shortie-shorts.” The girls giggled wildly at this; S-J blushed. Rionda took no notice of either. “I worked at Revere Beach for quite awhile when I lived in Mass,”
she said. “Let me show you kids how this works. Want to go for a buck, pal? Or is that too sweet for you?”
“In your presence everything would be sweet,” McQuown said sentimentally, and snatched her dollar the moment it was out of her purse. He held it up to the light, examined it with a cold eye, then set it down to the left of the cards. “Looks like a good “un,” he said. “Let's play, darling. What's your name?”
Pudd'ntane,” Rionda said. “Ask me again and I'll tell you the same.”
“Ree, don't you think—” Anita Gerber began.
“I told you, I'm wise to the gaff,” Rionda said. “Run em, my pal.”
“Without delay,” McQuown agreed, and his hands blurred the three red-backed cards into motion (up and down, all around, to and fro, watch them go), finally settling them in a line of three again. And this time, Bobby observed with amazement, all three cards had those slightly bent corners.
Rionda's little smile had gone. She looked from the short row of cards to McQuown, then down at the cards again, and then at her dollar bill, lying off to one side and fluttering slightly in the little seabreeze that had come up. Finally she looked back at McQuown. “You suckered me, pally,” she said. “Didn't you?”
“No,” McQuown said. “I raced you. Now . . . what do you say?”
“I think I say that was a real good dollar that didn't make no trouble and I'm sorry to see it go,” Rionda replied, and pointed to the middle card.
McQuown turned it over, revealed the king, and made Rionda's dollar disappear into his pocket. This time the queen was on the far left. McQuown, a dollar and a quarter richer, smiled at the folks from Harwich. The plastic flower tucked into the brim of his hat nodded to and fro in the salt-smelling air. “Who's next?” he asked. “Who wants to race his eye against my hand?”
“I think we're all raced out,” Mrs Gerber said. She gave the man behind the table a thin smile, then put one hand on her daughter's shoulder and the other on her sleepy-eyed son's, turning them away.
“Mrs Gerber?” Bobby asked. For just a moment he considered how his mother, once married to a man who had never met an inside straight he didn't like, would feel if she could see her son standing here at Mr McQuown's slapdash table with that risky Randy Garfield red hair gleaming in the sun. The thought made him smile a little. Bobby knew what an inside straight was now; flushes and full houses, too. He had made inquiries. “May I try?”
“Oh, Bobby, I really think we've had enough, don't you?”
Bobby reached under the Kleenex he had stuffed into his pocket and brought out his last three nickels. “All I have is this,” he said, showing first Mrs Gerber and then Mr McQuown. “Is it enough?”
“Son,” McQuown said, “I have played this game for pennies and enjoyed it.”
Mrs Gerber looked at Rionda.
“Ah, hell,” Rionda said, and pinched Bobby's cheek. “It's the price of a haircut, for Christ's sake. Let him lose it and then we'll go home.”
“All right, Bobby,” Mrs Gerber said, and sighed. “If you have to.”
“Put those nickels down here, Bob, where we can all look at em,” said McQuown. “They look like good “uns to me, yes indeed. Are you ready?”
“I think so.”
“Then here we go. Two boys and a girl go into hiding together. The boys are worthless.
Find the girl and double your money.”
The pale dextrous fingers turned the three cards over. McQuown spieled and the cards blurred. Bobby watched them move about the table but made no real effort to track the queen.
That wasn't necessary.
“Now they go, now they slow, now they rest, here's the test.” The three red-backed cards were in a line again. “Tell me, Bobby, where's she hide?”
“There,” Bobby said, and pointed to the far left.
Sully groaned. “It's the middle card, you jerk. This time I never took my eye off it.”
McQuown took no notice of Sully. He was looking at Bobby. Bobby looked back at him.
After a moment McQuown reached out and turned over the card Bobby had pointed at. It was the queen of hearts.
“What the heck?” Sully cried.
Carol clapped excitedly and jumped up and down. Rionda Hewson squealed and smacked him on the back. “You took im to school that time, Bobby! Attaboy!”
McQuown gave Bobby a peculiar, thoughtful smile, then reached into his pocket and brought out a fistful of change. “Not bad, son. First time I've been beat all day. That I didn't let myself get beat, that is.” He picked out a quarter and a nickel and put them down beside Bobby's fifteen cents. “Like to let it ride?” He saw Bobby didn't understand. “Like to go again?”
“May I?” Bobby asked Anita Gerber.
“Wouldn't you rather quit while you're ahead?” she asked, but her eyes were sparkling and she seemed to have forgotten all about beating the traffic home.
“I am going to quit while I'm ahead,” he told her.
McQuown laughed. “A boasty boy! Won't be able to grow a single chin-whisker for another five years, but he's a boasty boy already. Well then, Boasty Bobby, what do you think? Are we on for the game?”
“Sure,” Bobby said. If Carol or Sully-John had accused him of boasting, he would have protested strongly—all his heroes, from John Wayne to Lucky Starr of the Space Patrol, were modest fellows, the kind to say “Shucks” after saving a world or a wagon train. But he felt no need to defend himself to Mr McQuown, who was a low man in blue shorts and maybe a card-cheater as well. Boasting had been the furthest thing from Bobby's mind. He didn't think this was much like his Dad's inside straights, either. Inside straights were all hope and guesswork—'fool's poker,” according to Charlie Yearman, the Harwich Elementary janitor, who had been happy to tell Bobby everything about the game that S-J and Denny Rivers hadn't known—but there was no guesswork about this.
Mr McQuown looked at him a moment longer; Bobby's calm confidence seemed to trouble him. Then he reached up, adjusted the slant of his bowler, stretched out his arms, and wiggled his fingers like Bugs Bunny before he played the piano at Carnegie Hall in one of the Merrie Melodies. “Get on your mark, boasty boy. I'm giving you the whole business this time, from the soup to the nuts.”
The cards blurred into a kind of pink film. From behind him Bobby heard Sully-John mutter “Holy crow!” Carol's friend Tina said “That's toofasf in an amusing tone of prim disapproval. Bobby again watched the cards move, but only because he felt it was expected of him. Mr McQuown didn't bother with any patter this time, which was sort of a relief.
The cards settled. McQuown looked at Bobby with his eyebrows raised. There was a little smile on his mouth, but he was breathing fast and there were beads of sweat on his upper lip.
Bobby pointed immediately to the card on the right. “That's her.”
“How do you know that?” Mr McQuown asked, his smile fading. “How the hell do you know that?”
“I just do,” Bobby said.
Instead of flipping the card, McQuown turned his head slightly and looked down the midway. The smile had been replaced by a petulant expression—downturned lips and a crease between his eyes. Even the plastic sunflower in his hat seemed displeased, its to-andfro bob now sulky instead of jaunty. “No one beats that shuffle,” he said. “No one has ever beaten that shuffle.”
Rionda reached over Bobby's shoulder and flipped the card he had pointed at. It was the queen of hearts. This time all the kids clapped. The sound made the crease between Mr McQuown's eyes deepen.
“The way I figure, you owe old Boasty Bobby here ninety cents,” Rionda said. “Are you gonna pay?”
“Suppose I don't?” Mr McQuown asked, turning his frown on Rionda. “What are you going to do, tubbo? Call a cop?”
“Maybe we ought to just go,” Anita Gerber said, sounding nervous.
“Call a cop? Not me,” Rionda said, ignoring Anita. She never took her eyes off McQuown.
“A lousy ninety cents out of your pocket and you look like Baby Huey with a load in his pants. Jesus wept!”
Except, Bobby knew, it wasn't the money. Mr McQuown had lost a lot more than this on occasion. Sometimes when he lost it was a “hustle'; sometimes it was an “out.” What he was steamed about now was the shuffle. McQuown hadn't liked a kid beating his shuffle.
“What I'll do,” Rionda continued, “is tell anybody on the midway who wants to know that you're a cheapskate. Ninety-Cent McQuown, I'll call you. Think that'll help your business?”
“I'd like to give you the business,” Mr McQuown growled, but he reached into his pocket, brought out another dip of change—a bigger one this time—and quickly counted out Bobby's winnings. “There,” he said. “Ninety cents. Go buy yourself a martini.”
“I really just guessed, you know,” Bobby said as he swept the coins into his hand and then shoved them into his pocket, where they hung like a weight. The argument that morning with his mother now seemed exquisitely stupid. He was going home with more money than he had come with, and it meant nothing. Nothing. I'm a good guesser.”
Mr McQuown relaxed. He wouldn't have hurt them in any case—he might be a low man but he wasn't the kind who hurt people; he'd never subject those clever long-fingered hands to the indignity of forming a fist—but Bobby didn't want to leave him unhappy. He wanted what Mr McQuown himself would have called “an out.”
“Yeah,” McQuown said. “A good guesser is what you are. Like to try a third guess, Bobby?
“We really have to be going,” Mrs Gerber said hastily.
“And if I tried again I'd lose,” Bobby said. “Thank you, Mr McQuown. It was a good game.”
“Yeah, yeah. Get lost, kid.” Mr McQuown was like all the other midway barkers now, looking farther down the line. Looking for fresh blood.
Going home, Carol and her girlfriends kept looking at him with awe; Sully-John with a kind of puzzled respect. It made Bobby feel uncomfortable. At one point Rionda turned around and regarded him closely. “You didn't just guess,” she said.
Bobby looked at her cautiously, withholding comment.
“You had a winkle.”
“What's a winkle?”
“My dad wasn't much of a betting man, but every now and then he'd get a hunch about a number. He called it a winkle. Then he'd bet. Once he won fifty dollars. Bought us groceries for a whole month. That's what happened to you, isn't it?”
“I guess so,” Bobby said. “Maybe I had a winkle.”
When he got home, his mom was sitting on the porch glider with her legs folded under her.
She had changed into her Saturday pants and was looking moodily out at the street. She waved briefly to Carol's mom as she drove away; watched as Anita turned into her own driveway and Bobby trudged up the walk. He knew what his mom was thinking: Mrs Gerber's husband was in the Navy, but at least she had a husband. Also, Anita Gerber had an Estate Wagon. Liz had shank's mare, the bus if she had to go a little farther, or a taxi if she needed to go into Bridgeport.
But Bobby didn't think she was angry at him anymore, and that was good.
“Did you have a nice time at Savin, Bobby?”
“Super time,” he said, and thought: What is it, Mom? You don't care what kind of time I had at the beach. What's really on your mind? But he couldn't tell.
“Good. Listen, kiddo . . . I'm sorry we got into an argument this morning. I hate working on Saturdays.” This last came out almost in a spit.
“It's okay, Mom.”
She touched his cheek and shook her head. “That fair skin of yours! You'll never tan, Bobby-O. Not you. Come on in and I'll put some Baby Oil on that sunburn.”
He followed her inside, took off his shirt, and stood in front of her as she sat on the couch and smeared the fragrant Baby Oil on his back and arms and neck—even on his cheeks. It felt good, and he thought again how much he loved her, how much he loved to be touched by her. He wondered what she would think if she knew he had kissed Carol on the Ferris wheel.
Would she smile? Bobby didn't think she would smile. And if she knew about McQuown and the cards—'I haven't seen your pal from upstairs,” she said, recapping the Baby Oil bottle. “I know he's up there because I can hear the Yankees game on his radio, but wouldn't you think he'd go out on the porch where it's cool?”
“I guess he doesn't feel like it,” Bobby said. “Mom, are you okay?”
She looked at him, startled. Tine, Bobby.” She smiled and Bobby smiled back. It took an effort, because he didn't think his mom was fine at all. In fact he was pretty sure she wasn't.
He just had a winkle.
That night Bobby lay on his back with his heels spread to the corners of the bed, eyes open and looking up at the ceiling. His window was open, too, the curtains drifting back and forth in a breath of a breeze, and from some other open window came the sound of The Platters: “Here, in the afterglow of day, We keep our rendezvous, beneath the blue.” Farther away was the drone of an airplane, the honk of a horn.
Rionda's dad had called it a winkle, and once he'd hit the daily number for fifty dollars.
Bobby had agreed with her—a winkle, sure, I had a winkle—but he couldn't have picked a lottery number to save his soul. The thing was . . .
The thing was Mr McQuown knew where the queen ended up every time, and so I knew.
Once Bobby realized that, other things fell into place. Obvious stuff, really, but he'd been having fun, and . . . well . . . you didn't question what you knew, did you? You might question a winkle—a feeling that came to you right out of the blue but you didn't question knowing.
Except how did he know his mother was taping money into the underwear pages of the Sears catalogue on the top shelf of her closet? How did he even know the catalogue was up there? She'd never told him about it. She'd never told him about the blue pitcher where she put her quarters, either, but of course he had known about that for years, he wasn't blind even though he had an idea she sometimes thought he was. But the catalogue? The quarters rolled and changed into bills, the bills then taped into the catalogue? There was no way he could know about a thing like that, but as he lay here in his bed, listening while “Earth Angel” replaced “Twilight Time,” he knew that the catalogue was there. He knew because she knew, and it had crossed the front part of her mind. And on the Ferris wheel he had known Carol wanted him to kiss her again because it had been her first real kiss from a boy and she hadn't been paying enough attention; it had been over before she was completely aware it was happening. But knowing that wasn't knowing the future.
“No, it's just reading minds,” he whispered, and then shivered all over as if his sunburn had turned to ice.
Watch out, Bobby-0—if you don't watch out you'll wind up as nuts as Ted with his low men.
Far off, in the town square, the clock began bonging the hour of ten. Bobby turned his head and looked at the alarm clock on his desk. Big Ben claimed it was only nine-fifty-two.
All right, so the clock downtown is a little fast or mine is a little slow. Big deal, McNeal.
Go to sleep.
He didn't think he could do that for at least awhile, but it had been quite a day—arguments with mothers, money won from three-card monte dealers, kisses at the top of the Ferris wheel—and he began to drift in a pleasant fashion.
Maybe she is my girlfriend, Bobby thought. Maybe she's my girlfriend after all.
With the last premature bong of the town square clock still fading in the air, Bobby fell asleep.
Bobby Reads the Paper. Brown, with a White Bib. A Big Chance for Liz. Camp Broad Street. An Uneasy Week. Off to Providence.
On Monday, after his mom had gone to work, Bobby went upstairs to read Ted the paper (although his eyes were actually good enough to do it himself, Ted said he had come to enjoy the sound of Bobby's voice and the luxury of being read to while he shaved). Ted stood in his little bathroom with the door open, scraping foam from his face, while Bobby tried him on various headlines from the various sections.
“VIET SKIRMISES INTENSIFY?”
“Before breakfast? Thanks but no thanks.”
“CARTS CORRALLED, LOCAL MAN ARRESTED?”
“First paragraph, Bobby.”
“When police showed up at his Pond Lane residence late yesterday, John T. Anderson of Harwich told them all about his hobby, which he claims is collecting supermarket shopping carts. “He was very interesting on the subject,” said Officer Kirby Malloy of the Harwich P.D., “but we weren't entirely satisfied that he'd come by some of the carts in his collection honestly.” Turns out Malloy was “right with Eversharp.” Of the more than fifty shopping carts in Mr Anderson's back yard, at least twenty had been stolen from the Harwich A&P and Total Grocery. There were even a few carts from the IGA market in Stansbury.”
“Enough,” Ted said, rinsing his razor under hot water and then raising the blade to his lathered neck. “Galumphing small-town humor in response to pathetic acts of compulsive larceny.”
“I don't understand you.”
“Mr Anderson sounds like a man suffering from a neurosis—a mental problem, in other words. Do you think mental problems are funny?”
“Gee, no. I feel bad for people with loose screws.”
“I'm glad to hear you say so. I've known people whose screws were not just loose but entirely missing. A good many such people, in fact. They are often pathetic, sometimes aweinspiring, and occasionally terrifying, but they are not funny. CARTS CORRALLED, indeed.
What else is there?”
“STARLET KILLED IN EUROPEAN ROAD ACCIDENT?”
“YANKEES ACQUIRE INFIELDER IN TRADE WITH SENATORS?”
“Nothing the Yankees do with the Senators interests me.”
“ALBINI RELISHES UNDERDOG ROLE?”
“Yes, please read that.”
Ted listened closely as he painstakingly shaved his throat. Bobby himself found the story less than riveting—it wasn't about Floyd Patterson or Ingemar Johansson, after all (Sully called the Swedish heavyweight “Ingie-Baby”)—but he read it carefully, nevertheless. The twelve-rounder between Tommy “Hurricane” Haywood and Eddie Albini was scheduled for Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night of the following week. Both fighters had good records, but age was considered an important, perhaps telling factor: Haywood, twenty-three to Eddie Albini's thirty-six, and a heavy favorite. The winner might get a shot at the heavyweight title in the fall, probably around the time Richard Nixon won the Presidency (Bobby's mom said that was sure to happen, and a good thing—never mind that Kennedy was a Catholic, he was just too young, and apt to be a hothead).
In the article Albini said he could understand why he was the underdog—he was getting up in years a little and some folks thought he was past it because he'd lost by a TKO to Sugar Boy Masters in his last fight. And sure, he knew that Haywood outreached him and was supposed to be mighty savvy for a younger fellow. But he'd been training hard, Albini said, skipping a lot of rope and sparring with a guy who moved and jabbed like Haywood. The article was full of words like game and determined', Albini was described as being “full of grit.” Bobby could tell the writer thought Albini was going to get the stuffing knocked out of him and felt sorry for him. Hurricane Haywood hadn't been available to talk to the reporter, but his manager, a fellow named I. Kleindienst (Ted told Bobby how to pronounce the name), said it was likely to be Eddie Albini's last fight. “He had his day, but his day is over,” I.
Kleindienst said. “If Eddie goes six, I'm going to send my boy to bed without his supper.”
“Irving Kleindienst's a ka-mai,” Ted said.
“A fool.” Ted was looking out the window toward the sound of Mrs O'Hara's dog. Not totally blank the way he sometimes went blank, but distant.
“You know him?” Bobby asked.
“No, no,” Ted said. He seemed first startled by the idea, then amused. “Know of him.”
“It sounds to me like this guy Albini's gonna get creamed.”
“You never know. That's what makes it interesting.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Go to the comics, Bobby. I want Flash Gordon. And be sure to tell me what Dale Arden's wearing.”
“Because I think she's a real hotsy-totsy,” Ted said, and Bobby burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. Sometimes Ted was a real card.
A day later, on his way back from Sterling House, where he had just filled out the rest of his forms for summer baseball, Bobby came upon a carefully printed poster thumbtacked to an elm in Commonwealth Park.
PLEASE HELP US FIND PHIL!
PHIL is our WELSH CORGI!
PHIL is 7 YRS. OLD!
PHIL is BROWN, with a WHITE BIB!
His EYES are BRIGHT & INTELLIGENT!
The TIPS OF HIS EARS are BLACK!
Will bring you a BALL if you say HURRY UP PHIL!
CALL HOusitonic 5-8337!
(OR) BRING to 745 Highgate Avenue!
Home of THE SAGAMORE FAMILY!
There was no picture of Phil.
Bobby stood looking at the poster for a fair length of time. Part of him wanted to run home and tell Ted—not only about this but about the star and crescent moon he'd seen chalked beside the hopscotch grid. Another part pointed out that there was all sorts of stuff posted in the park—he could see a sign advertising a concert in the town square posted on another elm right across from where he was standing—and he would be nuts to get Ted going about this.
These two thoughts contended with each other until they felt like two sticks rubbing together and his brain in danger of catching on fire.
I won't think about it, he told himself, stepping back from the poster. And when a voice from deep within his mind—a dangerously adult voice—protested that he was being paid to think about stuff like this, to tell about stuff like this, Bobby told the voice to just shut up.
And the voice did.
When he got home, his mother was sitting on the porch glider again, this time mending the sleeve of a housedress. She looked up and Bobby saw the puffy skin beneath her eyes, the reddened lids. She had a Kleenex folded into one hand.
What's wrong? was how the thought finished . . . but finishing it would be unwise. Would likely cause trouble. Bobby had had no recurrence of his brilliant insights on the day of the trip to Savin Rock, but he knew her—the way she looked at him when she was upset, the way the hand with the Kleenex in it tensed, almost becoming a fist, the way she drew in breath and sat up straighter, ready to give you a fight if you wanted to go against her.
“What?” she asked him. “Got something on your mind besides your hair?”
“No,” he said. His voice sounded awkward and oddly shy to his own ears. “I was at Sterling House. The lists are up for baseball. I'm a Wolf again this summer.”
She nodded and relaxed a little. “I'm sure you'll make the Lions next year.” She moved her sewing basket from the glider to the porch floor, then patted the empty place. “Sit down here beside me a minute, Bobby. I've got something to tell you.”
Bobby sat with a feeling of trepidation—she'd been crying, after all, and she sounded quite grave—but it turned out not to be a big deal, at least as far as he could see.
“Mr Biderman—Don—has invited me to go with him and Mr Cushman and Mr Dean to a seminar in Providence. It's a big chance for me.”
“What's a seminar?”
“A sort of conference—people get together to learn about a subject and discuss it. This one is Real Estate in the Sixties. I was very surprised that Don would invite me. Bill Cushman and Curtis Dean, of course I knew they'd be going, they're agents. But for Don to ask me . . . “ She trailed off for a moment, then turned to Bobby and smiled. He thought it was a genuine smile, but it went oddly with her reddened lids. “I've wanted to become an agent myself for the longest time, and now this, right out of the blue . . . it's a big chance for me, Bobby, and it could mean a big change for us.”
Bobby knew his mom wanted to sell real estate. She had books on the subject and read a little out of them almost every night, often underlining parts. But if it was such a big chance, why had it made her cry?
“Well, that's good,” he said. “The ginchiest. I hope you learn a lot. When is it?”
“Next week. The four of us leave early Tuesday morning and get back Thursday night around eight o'clock. All the meetings are at the Warwick Hotel, and that's where we'll be staying—Don's booked the rooms. I haven't stayed in a hotel room for twelve years, I guess.
I'm a little nervous.”
Did nervous make you cry? Bobby wondered. Maybe so, if you were a grownup—especially a female grownup.
“I want you to ask S-J if you can stay with him Tuesday and Wednesday night. I'm sure Mrs Sullivan—”
Bobby shook his head. “That won't work.”
“Whyever not?” Liz bent a fierce look at him. “Mrs Sullivan hasn't ever minded you staying over before. You haven't gotten into her bad books somehow, have you?”
“No, Mom. It's just that S-J won a week at Camp Winnie.” The sound of all those W's coming out of his mouth made him feel like smiling, but he held it in. His mother was still looking at him in that fierce way . . . and wasn't there a kind of panic in that look? Panic or something like it?
“What's Camp Winnie? What are you talking about?”
Bobby explained about S-J winning the free week at Camp Winiwinaia and how Mrs Sullivan was going to visit her parents in Wisconsin at the same time—plans which had now been finalized, Big Gray Dog and all.
“Damn it, that's just my luck,” his mom said. She almost never swore, said that cursing and what she called “dirty talk” was the language of the ignorant. Now she made a fist and struck the arm of the glider. “God damn it!”
She sat for a moment, thinking. Bobby thought, as well. His only other close friend on the street was Carol, and he doubted his mom would call Anita Gerber and ask if he could stay over there. Carol was a girl, and somehow that made a difference when it came to sleepovers.
One of his mother's friends? The thing was she didn't really have any . . . except for Don Biderman (and maybe the other two that were going to the seminar in Providence). Plenty of acquaintances, people she said hi to if they were walking back from the supermarket or going to a Friday-night movie downtown, but no one she could call up and ask to keep her elevenyear- old son for a couple of nights; no relatives, either, at least none that Bobby knew of.
Like people travelling on converging roads, Bobby and his mother gradually drew toward the same point. Bobby got there first, if only by a second or two.
“What about Ted?” he asked, then almost clapped his hand over his mouth. It actually rose out of his lap a little.
His mother watched the hand settle back with a return of her old cynical half-smile, the one she wore when dispensing sayings like You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die and Two men looked out through prison bars, one saw the mud and one saw the stars and of course that all-time favorite, Life's not fair.
“You think I don't know you call him Ted when the two of you are together?” she asked.
“You must think I've been taking stupid-pills, Bobby-O.” She sat and looked out at the street.
A Chrysler New Yorker slid slowly past—finny, fenderskirted, and highlighted with chrome. Bobby watched it go by. The man behind the wheel was elderly and white-haired and wearing a blue jacket. Bobby thought he was probably all right. Old but not low.
“Maybe it'd work,” Liz said at last. She spoke musingly, more to herself than to her son.
“Let's go talk to Brautigan and see.”
Following her up the stairs to the third floor, Bobby wondered how long she had known how to say Ted's name correctly. A week? A month?
From the start, Dumbo, he thought. From the very first day.
Bobby's initial idea was that Ted could stay in his own room on th