(Photo by Alec Soth)
Benjamin had resolved to not look at the sidewalks and ground so much. His mother reminded him daily. He had the habit of examining a tiny alteration in the sidewalk or the curve of downy feather, a twig that had been snapped by others’ feet and now lay forlorn. He admired stones. He saw things others did not, in fact, whether it was a last starling gathering up steam for the group gossip or the muddy tip of a grey cat’s tail as it slunk home after a night of stealth and thrills.
He wanted to keep the neighborhood clean, too. It was like a hobby, picking up shards of broken glass or a dropped business card, the pamphlet that never made it into a mailbox, the lost sock of a toddler. He thought about the sock a bit. It was late September and he imagined a chubby pink foot turning pale then bluish as the parent, innocent but carelessly so, rushed the stroller back home. Only then would the loss become apparent. So the blue and white striped sock went into a box, one of many where he stored all finds until his mother sneaked in and tossed some of it. She didn’t fully support Benjamin’s need to collect oddities, remnants and cast-offs. He didn’t like her invasion of his space.
“Why do you think nature casts them off?” his sister, Vi, asked impatiently. “Nature sheds feathers, leaves, dandelion fluff and so on when they aren’t useful. They aren’t special! People do the same, of course, but no, you have to pick up what they just let go.”
Benjamin gave her his best superior look which wasn’t hard since she was just eleven and he was going to be thirteen in two days. He knew he was not like other kids. How could he not? He carried a toad around in his jacket pocket when he was four and named it T. Troll. The preschool teacher who discovered T. Troll (T. for Ted but no one asked) found Benjamin smart and sweet, but thought it alarming that he had this relationship with a toad. Talked to named toad often, and knew many things about it she did not. His father told him this story when Benjamin skipped second grade. He was appreciated by a handful but bullied or tolerated more often. Ninth grade was not likely to be any more pleasant than all the others. Perhaps less.
Meantime, it was an ordinary Wednesday morning. He was passing the Gunderson house on his route to the bus stop when he first spotted the beer bottle. He stopped and examined it but didn’t touch it. It was a brand his parents didn’t drink, likely one of the local microbrews the city loved to boast about. He didn’t, as a general rule, take home bottles unless they were unusual or he planned on throwing them away. He had only ten minutes to get to the bus. He glanced at the big house. It took up the whole corner on the south side of the street. Mr. Gunderson was a doctor and he was fussy about his yard. Benjamin found it disconcerting to let it clutter up the grass but he went on.
On Thursday morning he was studying a slug making its painstaking way to the Gunderson’s fence when he stole a glance at the spot where the bottle had been. It was undisturbed. He bent over it, admired the colorful label and wondered if there might be a way to peel it off but the bottle was none too clean. That was going too far. He readjusted his backpack and ran to the bus stop. He thought about that bottle all day, why it was still there, who had dropped it, if it had beer in it. Who in the neighborhood enjoyed a beer only to toss the empty on grass? Well, moss to be technically correct. It had to be a passerby but not a homeless one; they found and kept them.
Friday was his birthday and arrived sunny and clear; leaving for school felt like good for once. He had tentatively made a friend the day before, a new guy from England who liked math as he did and cycling and, best of all, amphibians and insects. Benjamin didn’t cycle much but he was willing to if needed. He had hope for the first time that the year might be okay.
As he neared the Gunderson’s he hurried, the paused. The bottle had not budged. No one else had thought to remove it. He thought it was time to take action so he picked it up and peered inside, the sour smell of beer wafting up his nose, His upper lip curled. This was what kids at school often talked about, how alcohol made all the difference. He had even been asked to a beer party by the joker behind him in biology but he’d declined. The kid laughed, relieved. The being asked was what counted he supposed; he was the youngest in ninth grade.
But what if? Benjamin wondered. What if he went and a beer was offered and he was the only one who had never drunk a beer? Not even tasted one? They would be able to tell by the way he hesitated. And then they would make him drink it and the nasty stuff would spill on his shirt, maybe make him sick. He didn’t drink because he was not allowed. It wasn’t that he always did what he was told. But it seemed reasonable to him. He could have a drink when twenty-one. He had other things to do until then.
But he stood there and felt the morning sunshine and heard the wind in the high branches so he wiped the mouth of the bottle, put the bottle to his lips, let cool drops of beer roll onto his tongue. He spit it out. It tasted ten percent less than terrible and nothing to be excited about. He was about to toss the bottle when he caught sight of someone at the brick wall of the Gunderson place.
“Benjamin, I can’t believe you drank that.” Mr. Gunderson cast a large shadow with his six foot, two-inch frame.
“Oh, no sir, just found the bottle, and then, well…”
“Not so good, huh?”
Benjamin stood up taller and lifted his eyes to the man’s head. “No. Not good at all.”
“That’s what I like to hear. You may learn to appreciate it as an adult. Or not. Hand that over so I can get rid of it. I’ve been meaning to put it in the trash. And better eat a mint on your way to school.”
Benjamin picked up the bottle and gave it a toss; it landed right in Mr. Gunderson’s hands and he smiled.
“Have a good year, Benjamin. I expect great things from you one day. Tell your dad I said so. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. You all should come for dinner.”
Benjamin watched him amble across the yard and disappear. He wondered if it was possible to retrieve the bottle later. Keep it as a souvenir. If his potentially new friend asked him if he had ever tasted beer, he could say yes. He would pull it out of his closet and show him. On the other hand, it sure stunk. Benjamin took off down the street at a gallop. He didn’t want to be late.
The rules were simple: Pay attention, wait until the coast was clear, be fast and quiet. Smile. He’d recited these all the way down the street. All Tim had to do was wait until the cashier was busy ringing up a customer, then he’d edge towards the magazine rack and make himself small. He knew the cashier, Beth; she’d worked here all summer. She’d glanced at him when he came in, smile as thick with phoniness as her red lipstick. He’d find a way past her somehow.
He paused by the rows of aspirin and antibiotic ointment. If he bought something, it’d be better. He chose a Band-Aids box, then put it back neatly on the shelf. This first aid stuff cost way too much so never mind the story about his stepbrother, Evan, scraping his leg in a bike accident. He’d made it up just in case. But Evan rarely left the couch so it had been hard to imagine saying.
Tim had sixty-eight cents left from lunch. Probably could get a couple mints for fifty cents but they were in a small box perched on the counter. He adjusted his blue knit cap and kept moving. Past the make-up, past the paper products, turn the corner, then stopped dead by Mr. Nars’ legs. Or it seemed like it, the man was so tall. He looked like a human tower to Tim even though his dad said he was just six foot four. Tim had not yet hit the growth spurt he’d been promised.
“How you doing, Timmy?” he rasped.
His large veiny hands were full of packages of razors.
Tim nodded, half-smiled, then went around him. He raised his hand to make it look like he was being friendly but was in a hurry.
“Need a shave yet?” Mr. Nars chuckled, then loped down the aisle. “Lemme know if you need help,” he tossed over his shoulder.
Tim headed down to the magazines, trying to walk normally when he wanted to run, looking up and down the aisles. All clear. The new magazines glistened in the fluorescent lights. They made his hands itch just looking at them. The ones near the top drew him–skateboarding, car racing and maybe a peek at one his sister liked because there were girls in them, secret stuff. He scanned them again but he knew comic books were at the bottom, within easy reach.
Evan had said it was easy to steal a magazine, they were small and thin and you could stuff them into the back of your jeans. Pull your shirt over with a flick of the hand–that’s what he said, “a flick of your hand”–and then walk out. He made it sound like magic, like it was simple as making a dime disappear under a walnut shell. Tim could do that trick and Evan was bigger and clumsier than he was. Be quiet, fast, smile.
He heard the entrance door swing open but he kept focused. Casually, Tim picked up the Superman comic. His mouth went dry. He felt a little sick and excited all at once as he studied it. It didn’t cost much, but there wasn’t money for entertainment, his dad said, since his shifts were switched from nights to days. Tim was eleven; he knew it was just life right now. But he clutched it to his chest, started to slide it down, around to the back.
And then she started down the aisle. The new girl from his class. Tildy? Tilly? He felt sweat slick the nape of his neck and that sickish feeling hovered in his chest. She stopped, just stood there, hands behind her back, curly hair springing over her shoulders. The comic was at his back, flat against his shirt. He smiled at her and looked away, took the comic in one hand, let it dangle. When Tim glanced back she was still there, staring at him, brown eyes unblinking, her lips pressed together. He glared at her. She didn’t budge. What was she doing staring at him like that? She tilted her head at him, and tugged at her sweater. He shrugged, then carefully put it back in its place on the shelf with a little pat. A mishap, bad timing. He was about to say hi when she spun around.
On the way out the door, he turned back. Beth smiled that plastic smile; he knew she would never have figured it out. But Tilly waved back and forth at him like a beauty queen. Which he thought she kinda was, but better. Nervy.
Tim ran home. He couldn’t avoid Evan with his bag of chips and his stocking feet on the coffee table and that look he gave him when he realized Tim came back empty-handed. But Tim felt better than he had all day. Rule number one: don’t steal. Rule number two: don’t lie. Just not worth the trouble.
“Guess what I figured out today, Evan?”
“Stealing is for dummies, which I’m not, and anyway girls don’t like dummies.”
Evan frowned, cleared his throat as though he had something amazing and important to say, then put three more chips into his mouth.
Maisie initially felt just a bit put off by the thought of being in the thick of a crowd, even her relatives. Maybe especially her relatives, who were more full of commotion than a whole major city. She hid out on the second stone step; all six led to a narrow path alongside the house, the front yard and potential freedom. She considered the path, then turned back. Between yellow rose bushes and the willow branches she could make out various people. They gravitated to the barbecue or settled into chairs, murmuring over potato and bean salads, comparing the wiles of chicken breasts to burgers. Maisie was trying to be vegetarian. Her mother said she was misinformed and in an experimental mode, so gave her a side of meat, regardless. So far she hadn’t hunted her down with bleeding steak in hand, but Maisie was getting hungry.
The head count was sixteen so far. They were moving, talking splashes of color. She could see her cousins, Ricky and his brother Artie, and when they spotted her they whispered to each other, guffawing as though they could barely stand how funny they were. Next to them were their loud (her mom said theatrical) parents, leaning toward Maisie’s dad as he turned the hot dogs. His tall, lanky body was mostly covered by a big red and white checked apron mom had made for him.
Twos and threes clumped together at the long table with the umbrella, heads bent over plates and frosty glasses. Some were in circled chairs. They were gossiping but tastefully and in code, the way her family did most things. Every now and then someone would call out her name and Maisie would wave. They knew she would come around eventually. It was her way to sit back awhile. Or, as she favorite cousin Cammy said, “You take your time when everyone else is throwing it away.” Cammy had been in Europe with her band and was supposed to be in Canada now. That had made Maisie want to skip the whole barbecue but, in fact, she wouldn’t miss it for anything. Cammy had missed two, now.
It was the actual beginning of summer to Maisie, the fourth of July, and her mom and dad held this gathering every year to celebrate. School had been out for a week and temperatures were finally running higher, accented by the brilliant blue skies they had all longed for during the rain-soaked months. Maisie took a long, fresh breath and let the smells reach into her. She read a poem once where smells were colors and sounds were tastes and she almost felt that way today, like everything was bursting and she was about to do the same. But she didn’t let on. She watched and sucked on a piece of long grass plucked from the shadows near the lilies of the valley. She could taste the tiny bell flowers, strong and sweet.
Uncle Jon was showing everyone his new girlfriend, somebody with a name Maisie couldn’t recall or pronounce and a head of hair that blinded her, it was so red. She might be interesting to listen to later. And there was Aunt Nina coming down the other stairs with a big bowl of her best fruit salad. As she danced her way to Maisie’s mother, long skirt swaying, bowl held high, she sang out, “Here’s the best fruit salad in the Northwest, the whole beautiful Northwest!” She really sang, like it was a pop song, her rich voice carrying out over the neighborhood. But it was true. It had won some award last year at a cook-off. Uncle Frederik, trusty straw hat tilted back on his head, was right behind her with cake and mega-camera. He spotted Maisie right away and shouted at her, pointing to the cake. Maisie almost got up for that, to see whether it was german chocolate or a velvet cake or maybe, like last year’s, a yellow and white icing cake with a bunch of tiny flags that made up a large flag on top. That was a sight. He baked good cakes.
“Maisie! Get more iced tea!” her mother yelled, so she got up and went in the side door, through the dining room, and into the kitchen. There were two big glass pitchers in the ‘fridg and she reached for one when Ricky bounced in from the living room.
“I’ll carry one.” He took a big jug into both hands and gingerly followed her outdoors. “I’m playing soccer all summer if I can help it. Just started soccer camp. What about you?”
Maisie held open the door for him. “I don’t know yet. Maybe a trip to the Pyrenees.”
“Huh?” he asked, frowning up at her. “You don’t make any sense.”
“Either that or a long visit to Capri with my best friend, Marie. But you can’t come along.”
“Capri? Isn’t that in France? Is that where Cammy went?” He slowly walked down the stairs. “Artie’s learning how to build derby cars this summer.”
Maisie sighed. This was the problem with her male cousins. They were younger and less well-read, and they had a different sort of imagination. “No, she’s in Canada now.”
“Well, she’s lucky. So what are you doing this summer?”
“I’m laying in the sun and reading as many mediocre paperbacks as I can get my hands on. I’m going on thirteen and have to get started on my worldly education.”
He laughed. “You’re just nutso!”
She ruffled his hair and he loudly protested.
The afternoon unspooled, sun merrily beating down, then shadows coolly lengthening, the family still talking, milling about and complaining of summery heat and work tomorrow and how could they manage to get together a couple more times, at least, this summer? The white raspberry-filled cake–blueberries and raspberries on top in a sort of flag–was accompanied by dripping ice cream.
Uncle Frederick brought Maisie a desert plate. “No flags. But we do have to shoot off a few fireworks later.”
“You got them in Washington as usual?”
“Have to do it. Without all the noise and pomp it wouldn’t be fourth of July, would it? It is Independence Day, right? ” He pumped his fist in the air like the goofy, good-hearted uncle he was.
Maisie took her cake and sat at the wooden table near Miss Flame Hair. The big green umbrella that spread over them gave relief from the last of the sun’s radiance.
“Hi, kid,” she smiled. She was putting on fresh lipstick, a sparkly pink gloss. “Who do you belong to?”
“The chef and chief bottle washer and his gracious wife.” She licked ice cream off her lower lip. “I’m Maisie.”
“Oh, this is your house! Well, I’m Antoinette. You can call me Toni if you like.”
“I like Antoinette.”
The woman held out her hand, silvery long nails adorned with little fake diamonds on the tips. Maisie shook it and wondered how she could put on eye cream without poking one out. The woman wasn’t as young as she’d thought. She seemed sweet but faintly dangerous, if those two could work together. Maisie liked her just because of that. Uncle Jon winked at Maisie from under his bushy blond brows and kept talking about the politics of performance art with her parents and aunts. This could go on all night, she wanted to warn Antoinette.
Maisie took a sip of iced tea.”How do you like my family so far? All these relatives crammed together?”
Antoinette smiled, head tilted to one side. “They’re pretty nice. They really like to talk about deep things, all about the arts and things like that. Smart people, right? I hear everyone is musical or something. You?”
Maisie considered what she was asking her. Did she like to talk? Sometimes, like now. Did one agree one was smart if that was true? What did she mean by “something”? Maisie thought Antoinette was something with those nails and hair, and that could be considered sort of artistic, too, she wanted to tell her.
“Well, I like to sing and play violin. It’s definitely true we all like the arts. I mean, I could go around the circle and tell you a couple of creative things each person does. It’s in the blood, mom says, for better or worse. Dad says it can be a curse, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He plays bass, jazz.” She shrugged. “It’s just how we are, that’s all.”
“I think that’s great.” Antoinette sounded wistful. “My family…not too many of them left. Ranchers in Idaho, mostly.”
“You can borrow some of mine from time to time. But ranching sounds pretty exotic. And I like your jeweled fingernails.”
Antoinette laughed heartily and Maisie like the way she did, head thrown back and her earrings jingling. She was glad Uncle Jon had brought her; she liked rough edges.
Twilight was getting ready to creep up on them as the instruments were brought out. Chairs were pushed back or folded up. The food was taken inside. Then the deck became a stage as everyone roused from their after-dinner drowsiness. There were three guitars, a banjo, a clarinet, flute and trumpet. There was a giant African drum and maracas, a tambourine and harmonica. A viola and keyboard. Nearly everyone had something in their hands; they started to tune up.
“Gotta go, Antoinette. Nice meeting you.”
Maisie slipped into the back of the group and got out a violin, then tuned it up along with all the others amid a cacophony of sound. After some mild arguing, they all agreed on the first tune.
The sun was setting and above the treeline Maisie could see the tender rose and apricot in a sky illuminated from deep within, the stars heralding night. The little lanterns were turned on and candles on the table were lit. They raised their instruments to play.
“Hey, please wait for me!”
And there was Cammy running down the stone steps, her crazy curly hair flying, her band mates trailing behind her. Maisie put down her violin and raced across the deck and into her cousin’s arms.
“Hey, small stuff,” she said as she pulled her close. “Let’s make music.”
It was a concert like no other, so the neighbors said as they drifted toward the house and stepped into the back yard. But, really, it was just a family get together, it was summertime, and Maisie was stepping out of the shadows. She put aside the violin and wormed her way up front. This time she sang out, and Cammy harmonized beside her, and all those notes wove their beauty into one wild crescendo of love.