It was still a little too early in the morning. You could tell because the Junkman was out, clanking and clattering in the back alleys and making more noise than you’d think it was possible to make with a garbage can. He chugged along in an odd patchwork vehicle of his own design. It had been pieced and patched and welded together from the rusty innards of cars that had died a long time ago. Behind him he towed a dusty caravan of truck-bed trailers, rolling on rusty wheels and hitched together with bolts and baling wire, each bed a different chalky shade, each torch-cut from the skeletons of abandoned pickup trucks. The dark vehicle shuddered in the mist, bumping along and catching up with itself at the corners. The engine coughed and hiccupped, protesting like an old man, muttering at every stop and spewing forth clouds of oil smoke which left a telltale trail from one alley to the next.
Hiding beneath warm comforters with only noses exposed, you could hear him coming from two blocks away. Sounds had a way of filtering through cracks in windows and between the gaps in the shutters. Empty trailers rumbled, following each other in snaky patterns—waiting hungrily in the alleys until one by one they got their breakfast of newspapers and greasy ham tins, and potato skins and dried cheese, along with worn-out mattresses that carried telltale signs of having grown old in a child’s room. It was, if nothing else, an eclectic meal.
Behind the mist the Junkman appeared more like a ghost than any sort of flesh and blood person, a grey spectre out of focus that snooped about the trash cans
with unprecedented interest, wearing strange clothes that swished and flapped like bat wings when he moved. Wisps of oil-matted hair the color of ashes fell out from under the round Amish brim and blended with the fog drifting up from the O’Hanley.
Though the grown-ups knew better, the children watched him. Sometimes. They’d hide behind shuttered windows, peeking one-eyed around a corner at the figure in the fog, clutching handfuls of eyelet curtain to hide themselves. Yet it was as if he could see around corners, as if he knew when he was being watched, because he would stop and the black hat would stare faceless through the fog at the shuttered windows, through the drapes and around the corners. The sound of the clattering and clanging would come to a halt, and the children would freeze at the window and then creep back to their beds, uneasy knowing the Junkman was watching them.
On the other side of Potter’s Mill, and at exactly the same time, Esmeralda Quist, a relative newcomer to Potter’s Mill rumbled along as well, though not in the alleyways or amongst the trash cans, but out in the front yards along picturesque driveways, between mailboxes and white picket fences planted with sunflowers. She traveled from door to door, a pencil stuck in her bird’s nest hair looking as if she might be impaling some small creature inside. A grey leather notebook sat open on the seat next to her.
“Threeee Merry Cakes,” she chirped nasally, sounding remarkably like someone with a clothespin stuck on their nose, “One goat’s milk…Yes and one thistle tea.”
She scribbled through the pencil hieroglyphics on the third line, pursing her lips into a perfect red heart, and then tossed the items from the list into a wicker basket. She popped the tin top off the homegrown thistle tea, sniffed deeply, and then made a face. It was still strong—her eyes watered and she felt a bite in the back of her throat. “Mmmmmm,” she chirped again through her nose, enjoying the tea’s medicinal properties.
She grew everything herself, blended every tea from her own special recipes, collected her own mushrooms, (there were eighteen edible varieties growing wild on her property); she scraped tree bark and lichen, clipped and dried the May Apples, and gathered her own wildflowers for sachets and seasonings. For a woman in her forties, she looked to be about twenty-five (though a hard-fought round by round sort of twenty-five). The sparks in her eyes showed no signs of fading or wilting…and strange eyes they were…cow eyes, pale, blue and bulging as if some unseen person were squeezing her around the neck. Her eyes were set too wide apart to be really attractive and it was a little unnerving, they appeared as if they might fall out if she were to bend over or move her head too quickly.
Esmeralda was up and out of her antique station wagon and ambling up to the front door in the wink of an eye, dirty sneakers soaked in morning dew, leaving wet footprints in the grass and on the bricks. She drew her shawl in tightly around her and unloaded her precious cargo on the doorstep, folded the bill neatly in half and stuck it between two of the Merry Cakes. Then as quickly as she’d flitted up the brick walkway, she was back in the wagon. It was an old Model A repainted a thick Rustoleum green with varnished oak sideboards and a gold and red sign on each door that read, The Cake Lady in script so baroque as to be virtually impossible to read. She ground the gears unmercifully finding what was left of first and then ground them again going into second. Two houses down, she came to another squealing stop and repeated the sequence at the next house.
The Junkman, on his side of town, moved on as well, finishing up his route at Long Alley, so named because it was the only alley that went all the way through
Potter’s Mill without a dog-leg. He backed up the low-riding rusty train with practiced expertise and then chugged up toward Main Street which was the equivalent of ‘no man’s land’. He didn’t like Main Street, not in the mist, not in the darkness, not even at four-thirty in the morning. The Cake Lady traveled Main Street. And though it was only a quick jog, probably only two hundred feet at the most, he rumbled up slowly, straining to look one way up the street and down the other, then back again for any signs of people, but most particularly, most emphatically for… the Cake Lady.
It was quiet. He held his breath and let up on the gas to listen. And then with utmost caution, he edged out and then began to rumble quickly down the two hundred feet. Yet even as he pulled out, the twin goddesses of fate and profound coincidence snickered at him, so that almost to the second that he pulled out, what appeared coming down the street from out of nowhere was nothing other than the green creaking pickup truck of The Cake Lady, herself—evil incarnate, bearing down on him at a respectable twenty-three miles per hour.
In confusion and surprise, he hit the brakes instead of the clutch and the junk train shuddered and jack-knifed five different ways. The big moon headlights of the Model A loomed before him, illuminating the inside of the truck. In the lights he froze like a deer.
It was hard to tell what she saw or what he saw or if she even saw him at all. But there were boxes and piles of garbage strewn all around and some hub caps that had bailed out and attempted suicide. And before he could get his foot back up to the starter, she was upon him. He stared up, startled and in disbelief, horrified and strangely fascinated. There she was—the blood-red lips… the evil eyes… And he caught a glimpse of…it in his headlights…The pendant she wore, the gold pentagram, the sign of a witch. She grinned at him, at least he thought she did. He saw it and he raised his hands before his eyes to shield himself, but she didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down. Instead she started her turn down Elm Street and in a moment it was suddenly dark again. The puttering echoed from the awnings and the brick facades and then began to recede in the distance. He gasped and caught his breath and wiped off the sweat that had come suddenly to his forehead. His eyes looked as if they’d been stuck wide open, the whites showing all the way around, like sidewall tires and he listened to the Cake Lady’s Model-A fading in the distance.
On moving day, amidst faded orange U-Hauls and a Mayflower van jack-knifed up on the lawn, there sat a boy…an odd little boy, a fat little boy. He was propped against a fencepost like a piece of discarded furniture, completely removed and quite serene amidst all the commotion. He was, apparently, the one and only lone member of Potter’s Mill’s welcoming committee. He sat cross-legged, chewing on a weed, watching the moving men and the new owners with about the same detachment as one would watch Commando Cody on TV. He didn’t look at them directly, but rather in a sort of sideways peripheral fashion. And he didn’t wave, though that wasn’t too strange because nobody waved very much in Potter’s Mill. And he didn’t smile, but only stared with great solemnity at the hand trucks traipsing in and out of the old house.
John Hallacy spied him at about the same time that Charlie did and they both had given him their rather cautious ‘Hallacy non-committal half-waves’—the kind you give your neighbor in the city while you’re waiting for the elevator. The boy on the fence nodded to the father, but at the son he only stared and chewed as if he didn’t quite merit any unnecessary expenditure of energy.
“Friendly little critter, isn’t he?” said Mr. Hallacy behind the cover of the Mayflower Van. “Why don’t you go over and say hello. He’s about your age.”
Charlie examined his shoe laces with great interest as he listened to his father’s advice. “Ummmmm.” Then he peered surreptitiously around the side of the moving van, hiding himself behind a fender. The boy was still there—still watching. “He’s creepy,” declared Charlie.
“That’s only because you don’t know him. Did you stop to think that you might look a little creepy to him too?”
Charlie sniffed through his nose, which was his passive and secret way of disagreeing with his father without actually having to say anything.
“Okay, think of this...He’s the one sitting over there on the fence post. Am I right? I believe that he just wants to get to know you.”
“Maybe you’re right,” agreed Charlie. His father’s bouts of wisdom were like squalls that came up suddenly on the ocean…if you could ride them out long enough sometimes they’d blow over someplace else.
“Yup, you’re right,” he said, looking for a carton to carry into the house (and out of the conversation).
“Why don’t you get some Pepsis from the fridge, they should be cold by now. Let’s see, you could offer him one, sort of a peace offering. And there’s some old cookies in one of the kitchen cartons. He looks like he likes cookies.”
“Nothing, it’s just… It sounds like we’re trying to catch a mouse or something.”
“It’s just strategy, Charlie. You should always have a plan.”
“I was just going to say hello.”
“That’s viable too,” said John Hallacy. “Not inspired, perhaps, but viable.”
Charlie’s father was a writer, a consequence of this being an abundance in the Hallacy family of rather lengthy conversations concerning topics of relatively minor importance. Some of it had rubbed off. Charlie was becoming a careful one, a psychoanalyst would say he was much too cynical for a boy of twelve and that it came from having listened in on one too many cocktail conversations. It was, in fact, more simple than that. Down deep Charlie was a chip off the old block.
He visualized the scenario now, weighing it out and turning it over, but only then did he decide that it was, indeed, a viable plan. He walked in measured paces into the house, assuming now that he was being watched and when he came out, two bottles of Pepsi clinked in one hand and two packages of Devil Dogs in the other. It was just as he’d envisioned it would be going hunting. The Pepsis and Devil Dogs were the bait. He found a good spot between a rosebush and a rock and without looking up, he twisted off the cap and took a huge gulp, trying to locate the boy through the green bottle glass with his eyes half closed. The boy was still watching—you could tell by the angle of his head. He tore open the cellophane around the Devil Dogs with his teeth and took a big bite, then washed it down, peering again at the tinted boy in the bottle glass… until the chemistry of carbonated water and Devil Dog began working, fizzing up in his mouth and then exploding up in his nose, and imploding his brain. Then he looked up at the sun and sneezed. This wasn’t exactly how he’d planned it. But he lowered the bottle, confronting him at last, head on and sticky, holding up the Pepsi and the Devil Dog, the peace offering or the bait, whichever way you wanted to look at it. And at a hundred feet away the boy sized up the offer, looking around, as if maybe it was a trap. Then he slid off the fencepost, slowly and stretched like a baseball pitcher and threw down his weed. He was fatter than he’d appeared, sitting there against the fencepost. And he was shorter too, probably three inches shorter and a good twenty pounds heavier. But that was just about the right size for a friend. Charlie grinned and relaxed back in the grass, concerning himself now with the task of licking all the frosting from the chocolate cake at an equal rate. And seeing this, the boy began to walk more quickly.
“Hi,” said Charlie nonchalantly. These things had to be handled delicately. He slid the bottle over and waited.
“I’m Charlie. Charlie Hallacy, that is.” He corrected. He said it slickly, as if he should be shaking hands and back-slapping in good cocktail fashion. If he’d had a cigar, he would have flicked off the ash at this point.
“I know. Your father’s a writer. Some magazine or something. And you’re from… New Joisey.” The last two words had a bite to them as if they had been marinated in vinegar and pepper corns.
“So, nothin.” He took a gulp of Pepsi and stared past Charlie at the old stone house. “Why’d you come here?”
“I don’t know. I think my father wants something quieter for his writing. It’s supposed to be quiet out here.”
Bobby nodded at this and picked up another weed to chew on. “Did you know somebody died in your house?”
Charlie’s brain skidded to a halt at the sentence. “What?” If it was true, this was some pretty important news. “Somebody died here? Recently?”
“Nah, not really,” sighed the pale boy. “It was a long time ago, before I was born. It was out in your barn.”
Charlie thought about this, trying to decide whether this was good news or bad.
“The guy who lived here, he hung himself out in the barn…from one of the rafters. They said his wife drove him crazy. The rope’s still there; they never threw it away.”
“It’s still there?”
“If you want, I can show you where it is.”
“Okay. By the way, who are you?”
“Oh…” For a moment he considered the weed he was chewing. “I’m Bobby.”
The barn squatted down crookedly in the undergrowth looking like it was trying to hide from the house. It hadn’t been tickled by a paint brush in at least fifty years and only the thickest globs of red milk paint still clung in between the cracks and on the backsides of the doors. On the inside it was dark and a lot spookier than its Grandma Moses exterior promised, but there was the friendly smell of antique cow manure and moldy hay which told your nose that everything was okay…except of course, for the hanging.
There was magic up in the roof, the likes of which Charlie had never seen except at the planetarium, thousands of pinholes of light, places where the nails had rusted and fallen through, squirrel teeth marks and shingles that had rotted and tattered, making the inside of the barn look just like a night sky in the day time. Only here you could crawl up and touch the stars if you wanted.
Mold and dust hung heavy in the air. Everywhere against the walls and on the second floor were dusty wooden boxes filled-to-overflowing with strange contraptions and devices from a different time…filigreed brass hinges and clock parts and a clarinet and pieces of tractor, and a rusting antique erector set. And packed inside the big boxes were hundreds of smaller boxes, all concealing some kind of treasure and all layered with approximately the same half inch of dust. There’s dust and there is dust. There is old dust and there’s new, and up in the top of the barn even the dust was antique. It smelled a little different in the chicken coop, like old rotten milk, and there were peach baskets lined up on the roosts filled with old magazines and newspapers and letters, also grey and dusty.
“This is an awful lot of junk,” said Charlie. There was a hint of accusation in his voice. He looked around and picked up a National Geographic from 1942. It fell open to an ad for a Desoto with what looked like gangsters standing around looking for trouble. Actually the ads were a lot more interesting than the pictures of the “Natives of Manila” because those natives probably still looked just about that way. He sniffed the paper and the print; it smelled like the back room in the Little Olde Bookstore. “Jeez, didn’t they throw anything away?”
Bobby snickered, but not like a kid, more like a grownup, as if that was about the stupidest thing he had ever heard.
“You gotta be careful what you throw away around here. These are all like clues. Junk tells a story about a person.” He watched Charlie as he flipped through the magazine. “So… you wanna see the rope?”
Inside the house, Mrs. Hallacy was attacking the kitchen floor with a new green straw broom that sent dust clouds swirling against the cabinets and the resident spiders scurrying and wondering why the sudden attack. She glared at the piles of dirt on the floor and the holes in the linoleum and resolved to get a shovel next time she went to town…and some Lysol and some Spic & Span, and a bottle of ammonia—a big bottle, and… There was something about that much dirt, that it felt like war, and so far, armed with only a broom and some Brillo pads, she was way under-gunned for the house.
But Margot was German and John always said that the Germans had a couple extra genes in their makeup—one for cleaning and one for declaring war and so she was pretty much a natural for the job at hand. She pried open the windows and propped open the doors under the sink. There was a fuzzy black line of demarcation where the last people had cleaned only to where it showed and judging by the line, they must have done it that way for a long time. Then suddenly— she jumped back, reflexively, the way you do when you see a snake. Something moved…something in behind the rags and the crusted cans and the newspapers. The brown Acme bags crinkled in the back.
“Charlie!” she yelled out the screen door. “Charlieee get your little fanny in here! Charlie!”
The two of them heard it through the walls of the barn. They heard it just as Bobby was displaying a moldy length of rope that had been tied in a somewhat disappointing square knot—it wasn’t even a hangman’s knot.
“Mom,” he yelled back at the top of his lungs, “I’m up here.” The two waited for two heartbeats and then, “I’m up in the barn!”
“Charlieee!” came her voice again, louder. She hadn’t heard them. “There’s something in the kitchen… Under the sink…It’s moving!”
They looked at each other.
“What do you think?”
Bobby only shook his head.
“Jeez, I think my Dad went into town.” He looked in his new friend’s eyes as he thought and noticed the freckles and the crooked gap between his front teeth. And the skin on his arms was white and translucent like some fat people’s. “Oh, wait. The gun…” His eyes brightened in revelation. Where they’d lived before, a gun was something you kept wrapped-up in a bath towel in the closet or hung on the wall. It had never fully occurred to him that you could also shoot it.
“We’re on our way!!” he yelled point blank at the barn boards, feeling like the Lone Ranger.
Mrs. Hallacy was kneeling on a chrome-legged chair holding her broom like a baseball bat when they ran in. She was adorned in a lace tiara of cob-webs, and her cheeks had flushed to a fine rosy-pink. She looked up at them brightly, her eyes round and beautiful like waxed chestnuts, her sun dress tucked neatly over her kneecaps. They had come by way of the upstairs bedroom and were now armed with Mr. Hallacy’s brand new .22 Winchester pump, a daisy lever-action BB gun that rattled a hundred BBs as they ran, a knife, and Mr. Hallacy’s sock drawer loaded with assorted bullets.
“Good goin’,” she said breathlessly. “Whatever it is, it’s still under the sink.” She looked over to Charlie’s new friend. “Hello there.” Her voice was like a little song and she smiled. “I’m Charlie’s mother.”
“This is Bobby,” said Charlie soberly. “What is it, Mom?”
“I don’t know. But whatever it is, I’d like you to get it out of here.”
He began loading the guns, keeping a careful eye on the sink. He cocked them both and checked the action, and flicked the safeties back and forth.
“Here, you can take the BB gun.”
Bobby hesitated. “I can’t, Nanna…” and then he corrected, “I don’t know how to shoot,” which sounded better.
There were earsplitting squeaks coming from beneath the sink and then the sharp crinkle of paper…it was still in the brown paper bags under the sink.
“I think it’s coming out,” whispered Margot, choking up on the broom. She nudged at the papers and there was silence. They stood frozen, waiting. And then it rustled again.
“It’s still there,” whispered Charlie. He looked at the position his mother had taken on the chair and pulled a chair close to the sink and did likewise. Bobby followed suit, keeping his eyes glued to the dark hole under the sink cabinets.
“How ’bout if I just shoot into the papers?” whispered Charlie.
“No!!” Bobby looked suddenly horrified. “You can’t do that. You don’t even know what it is.”
Charlie and Mrs. Hallacy said nothing, but their eyes caught each other’s and then all of a sudden three black things squeaked out from under the counter and scurried across the floor, their toenails clicking on the linoleum.
“Rats!” yelled Charlie trying to sight down on the speeding wads of fur.
“No! Don’t shoot em! Don’t—They’re moles! …You don’t shoot moles!” Bobby’s sentence flew out and then hung in the air for a long second after he said it. Mrs. Hallacy smoothed the wrinkles in her sun dress.
“No! …uhh, no.” Bobby’s voice downshifted two gears, taking on a sort of pleading cast that his rubbery face looked quite accustomed to. “Moles are… Well, they’re Omens. They’re like owls, only even more powerful. More like snakes.” He nodded to himself, pleased with the accuracy of the answer.
Charlie lowered the gun and clicked the safety back on. The largest mole skittered across the kitchen floor, blind and completely oblivious to the heavy firepower that was poised on the chairs in the strange dimension above. It stopped in the middle of the floor and raised its head sniffing around with its octopus nose and then squeaked again.
“Okay… he’s talkin to the other moles,” said Bobby.
Mrs. Hallacy gazed down from her station and lowered the broom. “What is he saying?”
Bobby ignored the question. “You can’t kill them, it’s bad luck, real bad luck. And…” He paused and decided to throw in some more mole information, “…if they should make their tunnel in the shape of a circle in your front yard… Well….if they do that, then you know someone’s going to die.”
Charlie sucked in his breath and it evaporated inside him.
“It’s true!” Bobby’s eyes were stretched up out of round, reflecting pale blue, the color of robin’s eggs in the kitchen light. “And if you swallow the heart of a mole—it has to be fresh out of its body—still beating, then you can get future sight, but I think that’s only just in glimpses.”
Margot’s mind frowned, but she smiled anyway. “My, my, my, you seem to know an awful lot about moles. Where’d you learn all that?”
“From the jun…” He stopped himself. “..from books.. and things.”
“Well then, I suppose if we’re not going to kill them, maybe we can at least escort them out in the grass?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “And then you two can get this stuff cleaned out from under the sink and fill in the holes where they’re getting in.”
Bobby stared faraway, trying to remember what else he’d learned about moles. His eyes followed Mrs. Hallacy as she lowered the broom weapon and put it off in the corner. She was pretty. And young… not like Nanna, and he wondered if his own mother had been young and pretty.
It took a full five days…five days and nights that is, getting up early with the sun and working till about eight-thirty or nine at night. It was strange moving into a really old house. There was history everywhere, little tales and mysteries in each mark on the floor and each gouge in the woodwork. In the kitchen there were four round rings where the table had stood. And whoever had owned it before had seen fit to keep it in that exact spot for at least thirty or forty years. And at the head of the table there were parallel gouges where the head of the household must have teetered back in his chair every night after dinner.
On the second floor, in a tiny back bedroom that looked like a closet, she discovered a transparent message that had been scratched in the wavery window glass. It read: ‘Thomas and Prudence Endicott 1789,’ and around it was scratched a crude heart. She scrubbed that window twice and from then on examined each pane of glass that she cleaned, hoping for more clues.
The plumbing spoke volumes. Whoever had owned the place before hadn’t put much store in plumbers. Candle stubs and burnt-out matches adorned the under-sink cabinets and nearly every joint had been wrapped thickly with electrical tape. Rust stains were everywhere and old tools and broken parts and dirty washers and spare rolls of the antique tape in the bottoms of the bathroom cabinets that told of terrible bouts with water and promised future ones. Clean spots on the walls told where every picture and wall clock had hung, and new grey steel I beams in the cellar were portents of future trouble with rotten wood. It was a charming place and very historic.
With the tactics and logistics of a general, Margot had formed a staging area of garbage cans and paper bags filled with junk, stacks of papers, mostly, but there were giant piles of old clothes, broken floor lamps with globs of paint on the cords, and worn-out vaudeville-looking suitcases with loose change and ticket stubs in the bottom. And then there were piles and stacks of boxes of things…all kinds of things. It must have been against these people’s religion to throw anything away. Junk jewelry, and pictures, and carved wooden pieces, and tin boxes and pins and broaches and old fashioned camera equipment.
By Wednesday night she had accumulated thirty-five overstuffed Acme bags, six garbage cans filled-to-overflowing, and a rather rag-tag skeleton army of assorted floor lamps, the biggest shades with the fluted columns belonging to the generals. By 7:30 she declared a limited victory and left orders that all bags, cans—everything that was now in the garage go straight out to the road for the junkman in the morning. No sniffing around in the bags. There was enough neat stuff to last seven or eight lifetimes. She climbed the stairs cobwebbed and weary and began running a victory bubble bath.
Bobby was quiet as he helped load the bags into the back of the old pick-up. He looked worriedly around at the trash and at Mr. Hallacy and Charlie, but in the twilight it was hard to make out expressions. It took five loads in the pickup and by the time they were finished, twilight had turned to night and the bats followed along flitting and squeaking in and out of the garage, using radar to track down supper.
“That’s good work, you two,” declared John Hallacy. It was good that there was somebody for Charlie, somebody his own age. The stories, the articles he was sent out to do, took him far from home and for long periods of time. The postcards helped, the tissue-paper letters, the suitcases full of swords and foreign coins and elephant’s teeth when he returned, they all helped. But he could see that the absences were taking their toll.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I could go for a little ice cream.”
“Really?” The two of them shared the same expression. Ice cream was a common denominator—the universal food. If the United States could just send gallons of ice cream over to Russia, with all that good will, they could have save jillions of dollars on bombs and airplanes.
“Sure. You guys can ride in the back if you want.”
They stood behind the cab, legs spread for traction, peering over the cab like diminutive South African dictators doing a nighttime parade. From inside, all that was visible were two sets of dirty jeans pressed like flowers against the rear window and half of Bobby’s moon-white stomach.
Potter’s Mill was dark, battened down and laced up tight. Even the drug store had turned off the display window and there was not an extra light burning in the town to invite you to stay or to tell you to come back the next day. John Hallacy fumed a little, knowing that Bobby must surely have known that nothing would be open. He pulled over, finally at the south end of town and rolled down the window.
“Okay, I give up. So who has ice cream around here?” he yelled, not trying terribly hard to cover up his annoyance. There was brief conspirational buzzing behind the glass and he watched in the rearview the stomachs shifting around like fish in an aquarium. Charlie’s spokesman-like voice came muted through the roof.
“Dad… Bobby says there isn’t anything open in Potter’s Mill. But there’s a gas station up on the highway and they have ice cream sandwiches.”
“…gas station.” The words tapped in his head like eggs cracking on the rim of a mixing bowl. It was a clammy feeling. So this was Potter’s Mill by night… a gas station. He stared out at the darkened streets, beginning to see the town for the first time.
“Okay…” he yelled into the headliner, “which gas station?” There was a pause, and then:
“Uhh. There’s only one, Dad.”
Sitting on a curb, licking around the edges of an ice cream sandwich that was just the right limpness, and hearing bull frogs and peepers in the marshes, and having a new friend…sometimes life was pretty sweet. They sat together, close enough to Dad, but far enough away to talk, giggling and tying each others’ shoelaces in knots in the darkness.
“How ya doin down there?” asked Mr. Hallacy every few minutes. But it wasn’t a question really.
The two of them were very different, and then in certain ways they were the same. One was wiry, one porcine. Charlie’s head was a hedge-hog crew-cut. Bobby’s hair depended on which way the wind was blowing making his head sometimes fat and sometimes a lop-sided dinner roll. And they were brave about different things. Charlie was mostly adult for his age, but at certain times Bobby could be downright old. Charlie’s slate was filled to the brim with model airplanes and fire crackers and listening to Dad talk about Morocco and the Taj Mahal and his next article for Argosy. And Bobby could draw a perfect anatomical rendition of a hand, complete with creases, wrinkles and hairs on the knuckles, and then he could add tattoos and dripping blood. Charlie could stop a line drive from short-stop, Bobby would have had trouble finding short-stop, but he had memorized four-fifths of Grandpa’s vaudeville routine and could explain in great detail, the difference between a troll and a goblin. The boys weren’t the same, they didn’t think the same, but they fit together okay.
“How ’bout another?” called Mr. Hallacy after a couple of minutes. The two of them catapulted up, one right behind the other, they sprinted and pivoted to a halt in front of him.
“Here’s two dollars, and get me a coffee instead this time.”
They disappeared inside the station and returned slowly, walking the coffee as if it were a time bomb they were defusing.
“There’s some change,” Bobby said, fishing around inside jeans that were the right size for someone smaller. His pockets bulged with odd shapes. He pulled out a white handkerchief which Nanna always put in his back pocket, three matches, a tiny pocket knife, and something heavy which went thunk on the ground as it slipped from his fingers. It lay in a sliver of fluorescent light from the gas station. It was heavy and metal, maybe iron, but it could have been bronze and it looked like a cross between a cowboy spur and a miniature weather vane, with squiggles and crescents welded to it in a peculiar pattern. It was well-worn, polished from doing time in denim. It looked very old and yet it didn’t.
“Hey guys!! What the heck is that?” asked John Hallacy.
Bobby picked it up, hesitating, fighting the instinct to just jam it back into his pocket.
“It’s…a thing. It’s.. just a thing.”