The North unfolds above them clinging, creeping night
Ricky awoke as always at 6 a.m. The sun was up and he was eager to play outside. He remembered being four and looking out the window even earlier, right before dawn, and seeing a strange circle in the sky, with spikes all around it, like the satellite urchin Daddy had bought him at the Museum of Natural History. He said he had seen a satellite. Mommy said it was a dream.
Mommy and Daddy didn't wake until eight a.m. and he was under strict injunction not to wake them. There was no way to go outside before they were awake.
Ricky had dreamed for no reason at all that the world was wrapped in an autumn leaf. The dream had not been frightening but it had been very sad.
He crept out into the hall, past their bedroom door, and walked quietly to Robby's room. Looking in, he saw his younger brother fast asleep. Robby was unpredictable in the early mornings; if he woke him, Robby might wake with a smile, eager to play, or he might be irritable and go back to sleep. Ricky decided to save him for a last resort.
He went downstairs and poured himself a glass of orange juice and a bowl of Frosted Flakes with milk. He ate the cereal as slowly as possible, looking for an experience in every bite; he had discovered that you could narrow your entire world to the taste of something delicious: cereal with sugar, a jelly bean, a piece of spearmint leaf candy, or a bite from a chocolate chip cookie or a brownie.
It was still only six-fifteen. Ricky went into the living room and found the Jules Verne book with the colorful cover. He picked it up and continued reading about Captain Nemo and was lost to himself, so that the time passed very quickly until Robby came downstairs, smiling and cheerful. Mommy and Daddy were still not up.
Earlier in the week Grandma and Grandpa had given them presents of two identical blue capes they had made from some spare cloth in their dress shop. This had happened because a few weeks earlier, they had asked Ricky what he would like as a gift, and he had said a Superman cape. He was a bit disappointed when they brought one for Robby as well.
The boys decided to play Superman and they both tied their capes on and ran around the ground floor of the two story house. With the best intentions, they got out of hand, and when they began leaping down the stairs pretending to fly, they woke Daddy.
He came downstairs amused but grouchy, and mainly interested in protecting Mommy, so he took both boys into his study opposite the living room where he sat on the couch and took them both on his knees. He started to tell them a story, but he was so exhausted his eyes began to close. "What pets did you have when you were a boy?" Ricky asked. "I had a horse once," said Daddy, who was half asleep. Ricky had never heard this before and was tremendously excited because he wanted one too. Daddy had always said it was impossible to keep a horse in Brooklyn, but Daddy had grown up in Brooklyn. "When did you have a horse?" "What?" said Daddy, his eyes opening. "The horse, Daddy, you just said you had a horse." "I never had a horse," Daddy said. "But you just said you did." "I must have been dreaming," Daddy said.
Mommy came downstairs at eight and made some pancakes, as she often did on Sunday mornings. Along with jellybeans and jelly candy and brownies and Frosted Flakes, there was nothing Ricky loved so much as pancakes with maple syrup. Robby was laughing and smiling and telling Mommy and Daddy stories, talking a mile a minute.
By the time breakfast was over, the boys could already hear their friends playing in the street. Robby washed and dressed and went out to join them, but Ricky felt suddenly diffident. A couple of weeks before, he had spent an entire Sunday in his pajamas, looking out the window but unable to decide to go out. By the end of the day he felt terrible, and he did not want to make the same mistake again. But he was more drawn to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than the outdoors, so after dressing himself he took the book and retreated back to his room.
As he read, he would put down the book from time to time and construct a parallel story involving himself as a a passenger on the Nautilus, instrumental in all of the characters' adventures.
Mommy came in and told him he should really go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. He read a little while longer and then decided to take her advice.
Robby and two brothers from down the block were playing ball with a Spaldeen from Chodosh's corner candy store.
East Twenty-first Street was all detached one family houses. Ricky's had white aluminum siding. It was one of the bigger and nicer houses on the block and he dimly understood that his parents, both doctors, were richer than some other people. Daddy would never say how much money he made and Ricky never thought to ask Mommy the same question.
The house had a porch with chairs and a front yard with beautiful flowers, which Mr. Tenone the Italian gardener cared for and which Ricky was not allowed to touch. In front of the house was an elm tree with bark that you could peel off in chunks. Ricky believed that if you peeled the bark off in a circle around the trunk you would kill it. Sometimes he would start to do so to see if he really would, but he would stop partway, partly out of boredom and partly because he did not really want their tree to die.
Everyone on the block was Jewish except the Royers on the corner, who were Protestant, and the Barroses across the street, who were Catholic.
On a weekend, hardly one car an hour passed down East Twenty-first Street and you could ride your bike, play ball or roller skate in the street all day. Brooklyn in summer had a nice smell of greenery, from all the flowers and trees and bushes on the block, and a lovely sound as well, a susurrus of hoses and sprinklers, cicadas, and distant cars.
East Twenty-first Street was almost like the country. You could find cicadas, monarch and luna moth caterpillars, praying mantises, and a variety of other bugs. Daddy had bought Ricky a book, The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects, and Ricky thought he might want to be an insect scientist, an entomologist, when he grew up.
He did not want to join the ball game, because he knew he did not play very well. He separated Robby from the Reid brothers by promising to show him something special in the backyard. The Reid boys wanted to come and Ricky revenged himself for their superior athletic ability by saying it was something very special, only for Robby to see.
Robby followed him down the block and they went down the driveway into the large backyard, where there were more flowers and bushes and a large tree. There was a honeysuckle vine and when it bloomed the boys often stripped the flower and then pulled what was left through their teeth; it was sweet like candy. The backyard also had a wooden carriage swing, and beautiful loam soil for digging or for gathering clods for wars with the rude children from the apartment building around the corner.
Ricky said, "Let's pretend we're explorers looking for dinosaur bones." Robby wanted to know what Ricky wanted to show him that was so special, and Ricky pretended Robby had misunderstood him. "I said I wanted to play a special game." Robby wanted to know why the Reid boys couldn't play wth them. "They're too stupid," Ricky said. If the Reid boys played, the game would become a wrestling match or a war.
Robby was a little disturbed to have abandoned his ball game, but he was very easygoing and quickly got into the spirit of the dinosaur hunt. The boys went inside and found a box of seashell fossils that they had collected the summer before in a granite quarry in Marshall's Creek, Pennsylvania. They hid the fossils in the backyard bushes and buried some of them, then spent an hour locating them again. They didn't find them all.
Now it was time for lunch. Daddy had gone off to make his rounds at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, but they ate sandwiches with Mommy, who was good-humored but pensive.
After lunch, Robby had an appointment to spend the afternoon with his friend Stewart, who lived a few blocks away. Mommy went with him, as Robby was too young to cross the street himself. Ricky read some more of the Verne book, then decided to go for a walk.
Leaving East Twenty-first street was like leaving the country for the city. Around the corner was Ocean Avenue, which was big and scary and had to be crossed carefully. Chodosh's candy store, the barber and the laundry were all on one corner, and the enormous Key Food grocery, owned by the angry Churgin brothers, was on the other corner. A few days before, Ricky had gone for a haircut by himself, still a new experience. Mommy had given him money for the haircut itself but had forgotten to give him a tip for the barber. The man explained to him about tips, and sent him home to his mother to bring back a quarter.
Key Food was chiefly interesting at Christmastime, when great toys such as battleships were piled on top of the grocery shelves. It had a soda machine outside from which you could get bottles of Coca Cola, and Robby had once gotten stuck reaching into the slot for the discarded caps. Robby was interested in a contest where you discovered different things inside the bottle caps. When Robby got stuck, the Churgins had been furious; Ricky had never met anyone who was angry all the time as they were.
Ricky crossed Ocean Avenue, noting that in the summer heat the asphalt had melted, again exposing the rails of the old trolley that no longer ran.
He walked down Avenue M, past the dress store where, in his first experience in the new neighborhood in 1959, he had gone to see the owner's pet monkey dressed up in little clothes.
He went in to Estroff's card store and looked at the books. He had only fifty cents in his pocket but he wanted to save it for a block of jelly candy at Chodosh's, so he did not buy anything. Estroff also had models that you put together with glue, and he had recently begun building these, so he looked to see if they had anything new.
He turned the corner and went into the playground, where he sat in a swing for a few minutes. Across the playground, he spotted a classmate, pretty Lina with the black curls, waving at him. He walked over and sat a few feet away from her on the bench.
"Closer," Lina said, patting the bench and he moved a few inches. "Closer," she said again. After several repetitions, he was sitting next to her, feeling very uncomfortable. Lina leaned to him and kissed him on the cheek and he ran out of the playground.
He walked on down Avenue M and a man and two boys, with the hats and the sideburns which revealed them to be Orthodox Jews, strode by with far more energy than Ricky had. The man, who was older than Daddy but seemed more energetic than him, walked so fast that his sons couldn't keep up. "I'm just trying to do something for a man that I admire," the man told them.
Ricky came back up M, crossed Ocean Avenue and went into Chodosh's candy store. It was a dark and fascinating place; in a small space, there were candy and magazines and books and comic books, and Benny Chodosh behind the counter would mix you an egg cream as good as Grandma's. Ricky knew that an egg cream didn't really contain eggs or cream.
The candy included Lik-Em Aid, a powder which left a bad aftertaste, and little sweet drops that you peeled off paper, sometimes eating some of the paper with the candy. There was Bonomo's Turkish Taffy, which was very hard but was supposed to be entertaining because you smashed it into shards before eating it. There were flat, hard squares of gum which were even worse but which you bought for the baseball cards. Since Ricky didn't like baseball, he had been more interested by the violent and frightening Mars Attacks cards, until Mommy said they were too lurid and he stopped getting them.
The best candy at Chodosh's was a quarter-pound block of jelly candy, which had a red, a white and an orange layer. The white layer was sugar and the translucent red and orange were different flavors of fruit jelly. You carved or broke little pieces off it and you could make it last for an hour or more. It was the most wonderful candy there was and Ricky imagined that if there were a heaven this candy would be found there.
He sat on the front lawn eating the jelly candy. The block was entirely quiet; all the children were off somewhere with their parents, and the insects, sprinklers and traffic had all hushed in the still of the afternoon.
At three o'clock, a black kid about Ricky's age came down the street. Ricky watched him with great interest, all the way from the corner to Ricky's house, which was in the middle of the block. No black people lived here; the only black people Ricky had ever met were the housekeeper, Lucille, who came during the week to look after him and Robby, and the chauffeur who sometimes drove the ex-judge who lived down the street.
The boy began speaking to Ricky when he was about thirty feet away, in front of the neighbor's house. Ricky had already concluded he had a friendly face. "Would you like to play a game?" He had a blue plastic case under his arm. "Lets see what it is," Ricky said. The boy sat down opposite him on the lawn and opened the case. Inside was a horse-racing game, of a kind Ricky had never seen before and never saw again after: you made little horses move down slots by pressing tabs at the edge of the board. It was a wonderful game, and Ricky and the stranger played for an hour. The other won most of the races. Finally, he said, "I have to go now." "I like that game," Ricky said. "Will you come back tomorrow?" "I might come by tomorrow," the boy said. Ricky never saw him again.
He went in the house and turned on the television, but the two shows he found were too scary to watch: in one, a man looked terrified as an invisible hand opened and closed doors and drawers; in the other, a spooky voice was speaking to a frightened woman. Ricky began to feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up; if he did not distract himself he would get the night terrors. He couldn't be alone in the house after that, so he took the Verne book out on the porch.
Daddy came home with a copy of the World Journal Tribune that had an article that mentioned him as a well-known doctor. Ricky was proud, though he didn't understand what it was about. Daddy lay on the couch reading about himself while Ricky read Jules Verne. Ricky enjoyed having his father there but not having to talk to him.
Mommy came home with Robby and it was time for dinner: mashed potatoes and lamb chops which she cooked in the oven. Afterwards, the family watched TV together and then it was already after seven and time to prepare for bed. An eight o'clock bedtime seemed terribly early, especially in the summer, when it was still light and you could hear your friends playing outside. Ricky and Robby went to bed, but neither could fall asleep; Ricky looked at the ceiling and embroidered his story about the Nautilus; he could hear Robby repeatedly call Mommy, asking for a glass of water and to be read another story. Near nine o'clock, after he had heard some words exchanged between Daddy, Mommy and Robby, Daddy came into Ricky's room and said, "Put your jeans on over your pajamas." There was to be a special treat: Daddy would drive them to Coney Island to see the fireworks.
Ricky dressed. In Daddy's Buick Lesabre on the way to the boardwalk, Robby was so excited he was silent, looking every which way to see the fireworks before they even got there. On the boardwalk, they could hardly see over the shoulders of the people in front of them; Daddy lifted them up in turn to see the wheels and clouds of exploding lights over the sea.
Afterwards, Daddy parked in the driveway and as they climbed the front steps, the boys could see fireflies in the bushes in front of the house. They clamored to be allowed to collect a few. It was now after ten thirty, but Mommy brought them each pickle jars she had washed and the boys chased fireflies on the front lawn, holding them in their fists so they could see the glow between the translucent skin on the edge of their fingers, then releasing them into the jars, which they would place besides their beds and look at until they fell asleep.
At eleven Mommy firmly said they must certainly now go to bed. Robby couldn't climb the stairs and Daddy carried him up asleep.
Ricky lay in his bed looking at the fireflies in the jar on the chair next to him. He lifted the shade and could see the next door neighbor's house and the narrow path between the two houses, dimly lit by the light on the neighbor's back porch. He thought up a story about himself, Captain Nemo, and the fireflies. The very next moment, he felt so sad that he began to cry, startling himself. He hated to make trouble, and to have things happen to him that he didn't understand, so he tried to keep quiet, but soon he was crying racking sobs from the bottom of his lungs.
"He's overexcited from the fireworks," Mommy said from the hall. "I told you it was too much for one day." Daddy came in, mildmannered as always but exasperated. "What's the matter, Ricky? Didn't you have a wonderful day?"
"Yes," Ricky said, weeping uncontrollably.
"Then why are you crying?"
"I don't know," he said, hugging himself with his arms and biting his lip to try to make himself stop.
"Did something upset you? Were you frightened today?"
"Are you sad about something?"
"I don't think so."
"So why are you crying?"
Ricky didn't know the answer and there was no way it could be discussed in words.