When the redheaded boy came home from school Monday afternoon he wanted to go straight up to his room. His mother watched him get off the bus through the opened front door of their lemonade-colored house so the bus driver would know she was home. “How was school today?” his mother said, still in her robe.
“We got a new kid,” the boy said, and he headed up.
His mother went to the kitchen and stacked last-night’s dishes in the dishwasher. Behind his closed door, the boy put his books down, sat on his bed, and pulled the note from his red homework folder. Disrupting the class, talking out of turn─ which was it this time? He looked at the words “Mr. and Mrs. Callahan” on the envelope, and he traced the letters with his finger, gliding over the deep ink and feeling the indentation made by the weight of each word. He opened the note.
Today we have a new third-grader joining us, Angela Pasquerelle. Angela and her mother recently moved from New Jersey. Please join me in welcoming her to our class.
The boy blinked rapidly. He read over and over, “Angela and her mother.” Angela’s father had died he had heard the kids whisper in class. It didn’t take long for some kids to find things out. He crumpled up the note just as he heard his mother coming up the stairs. He stopped and listened. When he heard his mother close the door to the small bedroom she now used he took the balled-up note out of the house, and he threw it in the garbage can in the garage. He returned to his room, and he closed his door again. He took the empty envelope addressed to his parents, and he grabbed a pair of scissors from his desk drawer. He cut out the words, “Mr. and Mrs. Callahan” and he saved them. He grabbed his 1973 Kentucky Derby souvenir cup his father had brought him, and he poured its pennies onto his pillow to soften the sound. He put the words at the bottom of the cup and sprinkled the pennies back in after first rolling one around in his mouth. He covered the words completely, muttering to himself how much he hated Angela Pasquerelle.
“You need help – we’re down to our last pennies!” The boy always shot up in bed, frightened by the dream. It had been a month after his mother’s angry shout, right after he had received his cup. “You should have seen that horse run, Matty!” his father had told him when he presented it, and the boy remembered the name Secretariat for the way his father’s eyes broke from the gate with excitement.
“I can’t live this way anymore!” his mother had said to his father. The dream always started with angels in the snow.
“When will Dad be home?” the boy asked his mother at breakfast the next morning. He was fully dressed for school and had put a penny in his pocket.
“I don’t know; your father’s on another business trip,” his mother snapped. She took a paper towel to the spilled coffee on her robe.
“I wonder what he’ll bring us this time,” the boy said.
“The bus will be here in ten minutes,” his mother called from the stairs, heading back up to her room.
The boy got up from the table, his eyes blinking, and he headed out to catch the bus. He watched Angela Pasquerelle on the asphalt playground during Tuesday morning recess. Again on Wednesday. On Thursday, when the bell rang and the children were herded toward the door to line up, he pressed in, pushed her from behind, then moved away. She cried out from the fall, and he looked over and saw the strawberries on her knees when she got up. I love you Dad, he thought, and he pictured himself once again in the deep nest of his father’s lap. Oh, the stories he heard! How his father would go on and on about the events he had attended; how the boy would rest his curling flames just beneath the waterfall of his father’s heavy breath: redolent of a long day’s toll on a gambler and a salesman, and a length ahead of every word. The boy shook the image from his head and put a penny in his mouth. He moved back in and followed Angela into the school.
“Come on, Matty, let’s go,” his mother called out into the backyard Thursday after school. She wore a new white blouse, and the subtle auburn streaks in her dark hair awakened to the afternoon sun. The boy heard but continued to throw the rocks he had collected in his hand at the neighbor’s skinny cat. The cat appeared in the yard one day. It kept coming back. Thursday it paced along the large row of boulders at the edge of the backyard, hissing at the boy.
“Let’s go!” his mother called out. The boy ran a few steps up and threw another rock at the cat with all his might. The rock skipped off of the uneven stonewall, and the skittish cat scampered away. The boy had one more rock, but he stuffed it in his pocket for when the cat would return.
The two of them got in the car and headed to the mall. The boy was quiet during the ride, until his mother turned on the radio and begun to sing along softly to herself. He looked up at his mother and noticed how different she looked from so many mornings in her blue bathrobe.
“When’s Dad coming home?”
He saw her brown eyes looking at him in the rearview mirror, and he turned away and looked out the back window toward their yellow-white house with shutters of a deep January night blue, the January night he and his father took a late walk down the street after clearing snow from the driveway once the storm tired out and the stars found their eyes again. They had walked through the night’s heavy peace with no one else around. When they had returned home, his mother had appeared outside. His mother! Drawn to the beauty of the last lazy flakes and the camaraderie of her husband, her son, and the snow, she came outside to join them, and they frolicked: they threw snowballs at each other in the snow; they wrestled in the snow, and made angels in the snow under the white pupil of moon above. They did this together, and the boy loved his mother as deep as the snow on the lawn for coming out and overwhelming the moment with the joy of a completeness he hadn’t felt since.
“I want to stop here,” his mother said once inside the mall. They walked into a jewelry store, and the boy walked slowly by the glass cases and ran his hand along the smoothness of it. No other customers were in the store with them.
“Can I see that one,” the boy’s mother said, and he looked over to see her bending over a case, pointing down, and the saleslady reaching in and pulling out a gold chain with a single pearl. His mother held the necklace up in front of her, then placed it against herself, and moved over toward a mirror. She smiled and spoke with the saleslady. The boy looked over at the saleslady and heard her say, “Perfect for a new job!”
“I have to go to the bathroom!” the boy called out across the store. His mother and the saleslady looked over; “I have to go now!”
“Just a moment, please,” his mother said to the saleslady, and she put down the necklace. She walked toward the boy; “I’ll be done here in a minute, Matty.”
“Now!” the boy insisted. He jumped up and down then ran to the front of the store, holding himself.
“Matty! Get over here!”
The boy ran out into the mall, and his mother came after him, grabbing his arm. A few nearby shoppers stopped and watched, certain the boy must be too big for such behavior. The boy tried to pull free, but she was surprisingly strong. The boy looked up into his mother’s face and saw that she would be bringing him back into the store to finish the purchase. He walked with his head down. He stood away from his mother and watched her pay for her own necklace.
When they arrived back home, the boy’s mother went into the house. The boy stayed in the parked car in the garage for a while longer after his mother left. He took the rock from his pocket, “I want a divorce,” his mother had said to his father on the phone last night. He brought the rock to the surface of the window next to his seat. He turned the rock to its sharp side and pressed it to the glass. He had tried to hide his head in the stacks of pillows on his bed last night, but he heard her say it through his closed bedroom door, and he knew what it meant from the kids at school. Justin only sees his dad at Christmas, they had said about Justin Miller, an older kid in the fifth grade. His parents are divorced; “I’ve decided to get a job,” his mother had then said. The boy scraped the rock slowly against the glass and scratched his full name, Matthew, into the window; “I think we should tell Matty together,” she had said.
The boy scratched his name out. He thought of Justin and his stomach ached at the thought of seeing his father only once a year. But he thought of Angela too, introducing him to an even scarier possibility just by her very presence in his class. He left the car and ran straight into the house. He saw the bags on the table, “I want a divorce…” He took the small red bag with the pearl necklace in it. He heard the sound of water running from the hall bathroom, so he scurried over to the kitchen drawer with the tools in it, and he pulled out the hammer with the silver head, “I’ve decided to get a job…” He ran out the back door and across the backyard to the rock wall. The cat had not returned; “I think we should tell Matty together.”
He poured the necklace from the bag onto a flat rock and raised the hammer; “I hate Angela Pasquerelle!” he screamed out, and he brought the hammer down upon the single lustrous pearl.
“Have you seen my necklace, I can’t find it.”
“No,” the boy said. He continued working on his homework. The phone rang.
“I want to talk to you when I’m done, Matty.”
The dream always started with angels in the snow.
“No homework this weekend!” Ms. Warren announced to the class as they left school. The boy saw Angela walk out with the children, then peel off to the side, as she did every day, to walk home alone while the others lined up for the bus. He headed over to the bicycle rack and his gold-colored Schwinn with the butterfly handlebars and banana seat his father had bought him after Broadway Joe’s improbable Super Bowl win a few years back. His mother got jewelry, he got a bicycle, and they even bought a lemonade-colored house. There were only souvenir cups now, but he loved them just the same. And his father was coming home! He wanted to feel his father’s presence more than ever before – the way he would be before the talking: the finishing up of what his mother had started last night; the call from Ms. Warren during his homework; the misbehaving in school, the missing note to the parents. He was scared that his mother wasn’t angry at him last night and didn’t mention the necklace after all; he was scared that he was going to be told of a new life. He had needed to take his bike to school, instead of taking the bus, and his mother had let him. When he had turned the bike onto Maple Shade Avenue for the quarter-mile ride to school, and he could no longer see his house and was alone in the street, the thought arrived.
What if he never saw his father again?
He pulled back, trying to accept seeing his father once a year, like Justin, but he didn’t really know Justin. But Angela sat right next to him. He thought of her when he arrived at school and parked his bike in the rack. He thought of her when he walked into the school. He watched her take her math quiz and he wondered what it felt like to take a quiz when you don’t have a father. He looked over at her during lunch. Does spaghetti taste just as saucy without ever seeing your father? He continued to watch Angela as she headed down the sidewalk after school, and he knew now that everything he was thinking was all her fault.
He went over to his bike and slowly unlocked his safety chain and let Angela get farther ahead, and then he started to follow her. Why did she have to come into my class? He followed Angela slowly, until he saw her turn from the sidewalk and cut through a section of woods where a small stream ran. Why did she have to sit right next to me? He sped up to the pathway. He dropped his bike, and followed her into the woods, all the way to a little wooden bridge. He watched as Angela went underneath the bridge and sat down by herself. He couldn’t take his eyes off the scabs on her knees.
“Leave me alone!” Angela shouted when she spotted him. The boy crouched near the bridge, Get away!” she said. The boy remained calm. The girl picked up a rock, “I hate you, Matthew Callahan!” She threw the rock and the boy ducked, but it hit him squarely on the cheek and he winced. She picked up another and cocked her arm, ready to throw again, when he spoke to her.
“How does it feel?”
“Get away!” the girl shouted again.
“What’s it like?”
The girl studied him. He hadn’t moved. He wasn’t going to do anything to her, despite the thrown rock, and she knew this, and she knew exactly what he meant. She took a breath to calm herself and then she spoke in a thin voice, still holding the rock. When she finished she said, “Now leave me alone.”
“But how?” the boy asked. He looked into her eyes and never blinked.
“I just told you. He choked on some food. My mom said it was something small,” she said quietly.
“And you see him every night?” the boy asked with big eyes.
“Don’t tell anybody,” Angela said.
“In my room.”
“How does he get there?” the boy asked.
“You promise you won’t push me anymore?”
The boy touched his cheek.
“He comes out of the walls at night,” Angela said.
The boy looked at her in amazement.
“Can you go now?” she said, turning her head away.
“How does he do that?”
“He comes out of those little holes where you plug in lamps,” the girl answered with a sigh.
The boy looked down into the water, “Do you talk to him?”
“No. He just looks at me. Then he smiles and goes away.”
The boy didn’t move. The girl crawled out from under the bridge, rustling up through the layers of old, dead leaves to the path that would return her to the sidewalk and eventually home. The boy didn’t look up; he stayed under the bridge and under the parasol of new green leaves high overhead. A breeze moved the leaves. The girl stuck her tongue out at him for not leaving her alone and she dropped the rock, and then she left. The boy remained still, wearing an odd smile, the voice in his head saying I want my father in the walls, too.
When the boy arrived home, he saw that his father was not yet there. He went straight to his room, and he counted the pennies in his cup. When his mother called him down to dinner, he didn’t ask when his father would be home. He noticed only two plates at the table, but still he didn’t ask. While he ate, his mother bounced her left foot short and fast and looked at her watch. She asked him what happened to his cheek; he said he fell. She offered him ice cream for dessert, and he took it, and he ate it slowly while his mother cleared the dishes. When the boy finished his dessert, he brought the empty bowl to the counter, and he saw his mother look up at the kitchen clock on the wall. He went up to his room to play. He played while his mother finished the dishes and paced around the kitchen and the living room. When he finally tired of it, he went into the living room where his mother sat with crossed legs, flipping through a magazine and glancing at her watch. The boy sat next to his mother and leaned against her shoulder, then wormed his way onto her lap. She put down the magazine hastily and missed the end table, but not his full-armed hug. “I love you, Mom,” the boy said. His mother squeezed him quickly and too tight, out of surprise, and her closed eyes wet the soft orange fire on the top of his head. He smiled up at her and told her goodnight, and he skipped up the stairs to his room, closed the door, changed into his pajamas, and he lay down on his bed. He did not fall asleep.
The boy heard his mother come up the stairs with a heavy sigh, then go into her room and close the door. He listened to the quiet of the house. The next sound would be his father, he thought, though he didn’t know when that would be, but he knew it would come tonight, even if it was too late for them to talk to him together. He didn’t care; he was too busy thinking. He shouldn’t be this happy – his father was coming home, maybe for the last time.
But Angela sees her father all the time.
The boy laid still, the swirling stew of disconnected hope and newfound information keeping him awake and oddly convinced that he would somehow share Angela’s experience regardless of its improbability. Still awake, he heard the garage door open and his father come into the house. No sound came from his mother’s room.
What did Mr. Pasquerelle looked like dead, before he came out of the walls, the boy suddenly wondered. Were his lips tight and thin as he “slept,” so unlike his own father’s open-mouthed snores heard shortly after his weight creaked the staircase, coming up to bed in the deepest part of every night, as he was doing now. The boy closed his eyes when he heard his father’s footsteps at the top of the hall. His doorknob turned. The hall light edged in first and reached through the opening but fell short of his bed. The boy let his father look in on him, and he breathed deep the scent of his father’s presence, the way his friend Angela would surely do.
When the door closed, the boy opened his eyes. He heard his father’s change jingle on the dresser top in the black of night. The boy laid still and stared at the ceiling waiting for the heavy snores from the master bedroom. To his surprise, no sound came. He waited. Still nothing. He thought of Angela and her father, and a shameful thrill began to rise. He threw back his covers and rose from his bed. He put the flat of his hand on his bedroom wall. He ran his hand along the rough surface, feeling every bump, crack, and bubble of paint. This is my father’s unshaven cheek on a Saturday morning, he thought, and he ran his hand down to the outlet and he unplugged his lamp. In his excitement, he grabbed a penny from his cup for good luck and headed for his door. He opened it slowly; still no sound. He had to see this for himself. He’d have to tell Angela the moment he got to school on Monday.
The boy walked softly down the hall, past the smaller bedroom his mother claimed last Christmas when she discovered the gambling had started up again. He didn’t want her catching him slipping into the big bedroom left to his father. So many nights he had sneaked by her door, slipping into the big bedroom, sliding pennies from his father’s loose change off the slick dresser top and into the tender palm of his freckled hand, in the dark of the big empty room. He would scurry then to his own room, tight fist swallowing the coins whole, where he would close his door, take the cup out from its hiding place, and plink the pennies one by one into the cup, savoring the dense jingle.
We’ll always have pennies, he had decided after each dream. He entered his father’s room.
His father lay on his side, one arm hanging over the side of the bed, his head turned away. His body lay still. Could it be? Maybe he took a snack to bed with him and choked on something small. Just like his good friend Angela’s father. The moon dropped its light on the floor, and the boy could hear a wild wind through the opened window. He was not afraid of what he hoped he would find.
He walked slowly through the moonlight to the other side of the bed to be closer to his father. A tingle ran up his arm, and the anticipation of improbable death pleased him. He looked at his father’s face: the open cave of mouth, the flittering eyelids, a muscle spasm at the corner of the eye – the sleeping face alive with unconscious motion. His father jerked in his sleep and finally emitted a thunderous snore. His chest rose and fell like a passing wave over open water, and the boy’s father settled into the slow and certain rhythm of deep safe sleep.
The boy’s heart sank but he stayed next to his father. He watched him until the wind settled down. He watched until the moon moved to a new place in the night sky. He would have to return to his room and start to prepare himself to only see his father at Christmas now, but he stayed a while longer, in moonlight and resignation, and he watched his father sleep in the house for the perhaps last time.
When he was finally about to leave and head back to his room, he thought this might be a good time to kiss his father goodbye since no one was watching. But kissing reminded him of girls, and the redheaded boy with the tender purpled cheek hated anything having to do with girls.