That afternoon, at Grandmom’s house in Magnolia, New Jersey, the boys were exhausted—emotionally and physically. The old-people pace of life was evident immediately; it was torturous and magnified their pain. Just to take a pee Henry waited thirty minutes by the door while Mr. Cluskey flushed three times and exited the bathroom slowly with a newspaper tucked under his arm. The boys scrunched their noses at the smell of mothballs. Henry sat uncomfortably on the Victorian furniture. Byron flipped through Reader’s Digest under a lamp made of purple glass.
A sunny, late afternoon lunch was prepared—peanut butter and honey on white toast. Grandmom and Mr. Cluskey sipped Lipton tea. Two poodles, one black and one white, sat at the foot of the table. Mr. Cluskey took his tea into the living room and sat down at a Wurlitzer. He began playing a happy song and singing for the kids. He smiled gaily at them with an air of pomp.
“He does that on TV, boys,” Grandmom said. “Have you ever seen the Al McCain show?”
Henry nodded. He spread peanut butter and struggled not to tear the toasted white bread.
Mr. Cluskey looked into the kitchen at Henry and stopped playing suddenly. He walked over and grabbed the knife from Henry. “That’s not how we spread, Henry. It’s like this—across the bread. Spread evenly so you don’t break the bread.”
For a moment Henry stared at Mr. Cluskey standing above him. “Okay,” Henry said, turning to Grandmom, “I want to go home.”
“I’m sorry, dear. You can’t.”
“I. Want. To. Go. Home.” Henry stood.
“Shhh,” Byron said.
“I want to go home!”
“Grandmom,” Byron said. “Can you tell us what’s gonna happen? When are we going home?”
She took Byron’s hand in hers and pulled Henry over by her side. “I don’t know.”
* * *
Henry and Byron settled in at Grandmom’s house. Weeks passed, and boredom rose. Light summer evenings gave way to cool autumn nights. They started classes at a new elementary school. As the trees began to shed leaves, Henry spent hours looking out the window. A bare sky let the cold light come.
One Saturday, while watching kids on their bikes from the living room window, Henry took his glasses off, put them on the coffee table and walked outside to make friends. Over the course of the following weeks, he befriended two boys in particular—a pair of twins, named Ron and Don, who were the biggest kids in the pack of mostly eight to ten year olds. While the twins systematically trained the other kids in their pack to respect their rule, Henry was in no mood to be bossed around, and he invariably stood up for himself. As a result, in a short amount of time, he became one of the top dogs.
On the day before Halloween, Henry put his eyeglasses on the coffee table and yelled from the front hallway, “Going with Ron and Don to the woods!” He ran out the door.
Grandmom went to the living room window and watched him walk off with the pack of boys. She noticed them all looking around and conspicuously passing something back and forth. Worried they were up to no good, she decided to follow. She grabbed Henry’s glasses from the coffee table, took her jacket, and ran out. She followed the pack of boys down the street and into a nearby wooded area, where she hid off behind a tree. She saw no inappropriate behavior and started to leave. But then, a puff of smoke rose into the branches above the boys—and another soon floated slowly upward. When she took a closer look now, she spied Henry taking a long drag of a cigarette. She headed down the path towards them immediately. On seeing Grandmom walking rapidly down the path all of the boys escaped into the surrounding woods—except for Henry, who, without his glasses, didn’t see her coming.
He blew smoke. “Where you guys going?!” He coughed repeatedly then turned to see Grandmom was just a few yards away. Henry froze, with several smoldering cigarette butts at his feet. She grabbed him by the collar and slid his glasses on his face.
Back at the house, Henry was seated at the kitchen table with a pad of paper and a pencil.
Grandmom looked down at him. “Henry! You are on a very bad path. Do you realize that?”
He nodded his head.
After Grandmom left the room, Mr. Cluskey came in. He watched Henry begin writing and shook his head in disapproval.
Henry shook his head too and mimicked Mr. Cluskey’s pursed lips sarcastically before he started writing again.
Mr. Cluskey leaned over and whispered in Henry’s ear. “Your mom is rolling over in her grave. Do you realize that?”
Henry froze and put down the pencil. As the words echoed in his ear, they seared the image on his soul.
Photos: Left, AmericanSpaz, cover; Bottom right, Greg Kieser