I was in my bedroom listening to records when the telephone rang.
“Mark,” Mom called upstairs. “It’s Billy. He’s asking you over to his house.”
I didn’t want to go to Billy’s. I was listening to Dance of the Hours by someone my mother called PaunchANellie on my 45-rpm record player. I’d already played it a dozen times at high volume. By now, Dad would have yelled up the stairs, “Hey, Maestro, turn it down.” But he was in his workshop where the shriek of the buzz saw drowned out my music.
“Can he come over here?” I yelled, over the music.
Putting the receiver on the table in the hall, Mom climbed halfway up the stairs to the landing. “Mark, turn down that music and come talk to him.”
Groaning, I rolled off the bed and turned off the record. “Coming.” I was bored, but not so bored that I wanted to be soaked walking to his house. All morning rain had drummed the porch roof while bursts of wind rattled the windows. Billy had only called because his friend from school, who’d slept over, had gone home.
Mom stood on the stairs, her hands on her hips. She was mad about something. “Ask him yourself. I’m not your secretary.”
I followed her downstairs and picked up the receiver. “Billy? What’re you doing?”
Seeing Mom listening from the kitchen, I turned my back for more privacy.
“Do yah wanna come over?” Billy sounded like he had a wad of bubblegum in his mouth.
“I don’t know. Wanna come over here?”
“My dad says I can’t.”
“He just says I can’t. Besides there’s something I wanna show you.”
I thought a moment, my interest piqued. “All right. See you in five minutes.”
I hung up and took my raincoat from the hall closet. Dad was pounding nails in the cellar, making another bookcase. “Mom! I’m going over to Billy’s house.”
“You don’t have to shout.” She found my rubbers in the closet. I sat on the stairs to put them on. “Why can’t he come over here? The three of us could play Monopoly.”
“Your father’s too busy.”
Her tone of voice made me look up. She was angry because Dad wasn’t spending time with her. Leslie was at a birthday party. And now I was leaving. “We can play when I get back.”
“Perhaps.” She kissed the top of my head. “Okay, go. Have fun.”
When I left the house, the wind blew high in the trees, shaking the last leaves to the ground. I hunched my shoulders against the rain.
Billy Melchoir was a friend, due to our parents being friends. His father was an English teacher at Browne and Nichol’s, a private boy’s school on the Charles River. Mr. Melchoir once tried to convince Dad to enroll me in the school. “He can ride with me and my boys. It’ll do Mark good.”
My father laughed. “The Arlington public schools are excellent and a lot cheaper.” That surprised me. I didn’t know they had to pay for me to go to school.
Later, I asked Mom how much it cost to go to school. “Nothing. Except for our taxes.”
“How much do the Melchoirs pay?”
Mom raised an eyebrow which she did when being sarcastic. “They don’t pay a dime.”
“They don’t? Then what did Daddy mean?”
“It means Mr. Melchoir teaches at the school and all his boys go for free.”
The Melchoirs had five boys. Billy, the oldest, was my age, eleven. Stevie was two years younger. A year later, Joan Melchoir had another boy, Robbie. Mom told me Joan was disappointed: she’d hoped for a girl. Not one to give up, Mrs. Melchoir became pregnant again. Once more. no girl, but Nature gave her a consolation prize: twin boys, Tommy and Eddie. The family bought a minibus.
With Billy attending a different school, I didn’t see much of him, except on the occasional weekend when he wasn’t with one of his school friends. Billy’s father had summers off and the family vacationed in the Adirondacks at the cabin inherited from Joan’s mother. My parents were good friends with the Melchoirs, but their life style must have galled them.
Despite wearing rubbers, my shoes and the bottoms of my pants were soaked. At the Melchoirs, I pulled off my socks and draped them over the hall radiator. Billy wedged my raincoat into the closet already bulging with coats and jackets.
The house was quiet. Not the usual chaos with five boys arguing, making a mess, or fighting over and, often breaking, every new toy. Sometimes Mr. Melchoir lost patience. “QUIET!” The boys, immediately silent, knew that the slightest sound risked punishment.
“Where is everyone?”
“Mom drove my brothers to watch Stevie and Robbie in a gym exhibition. Dad’s in the basement.” Billy seemed happy to keep it that way. He had blond hair cut in a flat top. He was six inches taller than me and stronger from playing sports. That was the reason I didn’t want to go to his school. With no recess during the day, all the boys played a sport after school for two hours. I wouldn’t last long in that crowd. Billy was sports crazy and I only wanted to read books.
“Let’s go to my room. I want to show you something.”
“What are you boys up to?” Mr. Melchoir stood at the head of the cellar stairs. He was a tall man and looked to me like a giant. His arms had muscles bigger than my legs. One summer, when we visited the Melchoirs at their cottage, Stevie and I played with his sailboat on the beach before dinner. The wind switched direction and filled the sails of the boat which swerved away from shore.
“Look what you’ve done,” Stevie wailed.
“It’s not my fault.” I’d only arrived an hour before and already was blamed for something.
“Yes, it is. You let it go.”
“What the matter, Steven?” Mr. Melchoir came striding up the path. “Stop your whining.”
“My boat’s sailing away. It’s all Mark’s fault.”
“I didn’t—” I started to protest.
Mr. Melchoir gave Stevie a smack on the back of his head. “Stop sniveling. Don’t be a baby.”
Stevie wasn’t crying, but I was glad his father didn’t believe him.
Mr. Melchoir had already pulled his t-shirt over his head and stepped out of his moccasins. He unbuckled his shorts and let them fall to the ground. I was shocked to see he wasn’t wearing underwear. He dove into the lake, his arms straight ahead of him. In no time, he reached the boat and started swimming back. He emerged from the water shaking his head to throw the hair out of his eyes. I’d never seen a man, not even my father, completely naked before. “Here you go.” He handed the boat to his son. He ruffled Stevie’s hair. “Feeling better now?”
All this time I stared at his penis, shriveled by the chilly water, but still looking enormous. Uncomfortable undressing in front of anyone, I always turned away when I took my pants off, afraid that my penis would get hard, for no other reason I could think of except to embarrass me.
Mr. Melchoir put on his moccasins and picked up his shorts and t-shirt. “You two go ahead. I have to see a man about a horse.”
I looked at Stevie already walking up the path. They were buying a horse? I ran after him, but Stevie was inspecting his sailboat and didn’t hear him. I looked back once and saw Mr. Melchoir, still naked, striding into the woods. I wanted to go with him and see the horse.
Now on this rainy afternoon, Mr. Melchoir loomed over us at the top of the cellar stairs. Billy shrank back. “We’re going up to my bedroom.”
“Don’t make a mess up there.” His father returned to the basement.
Billy’s bedroom was the only room on the third floor. To reach it, we walked into the closet of Stevie’s bedroom and climbed the stairs that folded down from the ceiling.
Once in his room, Billy pulled the stairs up, turning his bedroom into a hideaway. An opening cut in the floor above the second-floor hallway was covered with a wooden grill to prevent an accident. The opening also allowed his parents to monitor what he was up to.
Billy acted mysteriously. What did he have to show me?
“Ronnie, my friend from school, slept overnight.”
I’d met his friend once and didn’t like him. He was in seventh grade, two years ahead of Billy and me. Ronnie had bossed me around the whole time I was there.
Billy opened the top drawer of his desk. Half hidden by a cigar box, four shiny, circular objects gleamed under the desk lamp.
“What are those?”
Billy was more interested in pulling out the cigar box to answer. He opened the box and some photographs fell onto the floor. “Close your eyes and don’t look.”
When he was ready, we sat side by side on his bed. He showed me the first picture, a photograph of a woman lying on a couch. The picture was dark, but I saw she was naked. Her breasts were small, but she used her hands to push them together. She looked Chinese.
In the next photo, the same woman now with her back to the camera knelt on a chair and looked over her shoulder. Her circular hat was made of straw or bamboo and came to a point.
“She looks old,” I said.
The next picture was a duplicate of the first one. “If you want this, we can trade.”
I didn't want it. What if my mother found the photo? I felt guilty just looking at it but pretended I was interested. "What do you want for it?"
“I’ll think of something. Here, look at this one.”
Another grainy picture of the woman standing at attention. She wore a sailor’s cap and kerchief. With one hand she saluted, the other held a fan below her waist, hiding what we both wanted to see.
“This one’s better,” Billy said, revealing the last photo.
The photo was out of focus. Wearing her sailor’s cap with the end of the kerchief between her teeth, she slouched in a chair. her legs apart. She had no hair between her legs and her fingers pulled the skin apart. We stared at the picture in silence. We leaned closer, bumping our heads together.
Breaking the silence, Billy spoke with awe tinged with disbelief. “There’s nothing there.”
“Girls don’t have a penis.” I spoke with the pomposity of secret knowledge. Billy had no sisters.
“I know that. Ronnie thinks she had an operation.”
A creaking sound came up through the hole in the floor. “What are you boys doing up there?” Mr. Melchoir stood below us. “You’re too quiet.”
Billy stuttered. “We’re j...just looking at my coin collection.”
“Clean up after yourselves.” Mr. Melchoir returned downstairs.
He pushed the cigar box to the back of the drawer, uncovering the silver disks.
“What are those?” They were more interesting than a Chinese woman showing off her body.
“They’re silver half dollars. My grandmother gave them to me for my birthday.”
He handed one to me. I was shocked by its weight. Large and looking unreal, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Nickels, dimes, even brand-new quarters were nothing like this. They were ordinary coins, I thought, but this was more than a mere coin. “Where did she get them?”
“The bank probably.”
“It’s so shiny.” The head of Benjamin Franklin bulged from the surface and I rubbed his face with my thumb. The other side had a large bell with a crack.
“That’s the Liberty Bell.” Billy showing off.
Mesmerized by the silver shine I didn’t care if he thought I didn’t know that.
“My dad said I can’t spend them. I can only look at them.”
I stared at the other three coins. What would it be like to hold all four in my hands at once? I reached inside the drawer, but Billy stopped me.
“Give it here.” He took back the coin and wiped off my fingerprints. He slid all four into a purple velvet bag and closed the drawer. Let’s go downstairs and have a Coke.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon playing Monopoly, swapping hotels and play money back and forth. When it started to get dark, I said I had to go home.
I dawdled in the hall, wondering how I could talk my way back up to Billy’s room. Distracted, I put my rubbers on the wrong feet.
“Billy?” Mr. Melchoir called up from the basement. “Has Mark gone home yet?”
“He’s going now.”
“Then get down here and sweep up the mess you and Ronnie made this morning.”
Billy sighed. “Okay. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“No. Get down here now. Mark can let himself out.”
Billy didn’t look happy. When Mr. Melchoir gave his boys a job to do, he wasn’t satisfied until it was perfect. Mom once told me that during their engagement, Mr. Melchoir returned the love letters from Joan with the grammar and punctuation corrected.
I put my hat on. “See you later.” I opened the door. Billy trudged down the hall like a convict returning to his cell. When he disappeared down the cellar stairs, I closed the front door with a sound loud enough for them to hear. I waited in the hallway, listening to make sure no one was coming up. But all I heard was Mr. Melchoir telling Billy how disappointed he was in him.
I climbed the stairs covered with a thick carpet. At the top, I listened again, but heard nothing. My heart thudded in my chest. I crossed Stevie’s room to his closet and pulled down the stairs to Billy’s room. The hinges squealed, and the springs gave a load twang. I hoped they couldn’t hear that all the way down in the basement.
The light on Billy’s desk was still on. Taking out the velvet bag, I was surprised by the weight of the money. I fished out three coins, leaving one in the bag. Halfway back to the stairs, I stopped and then turned back. I took the remaining half dollar and tucked the bag under a notebook.
I left the stairs lowered, afraid they’d slip out of my hand and fly up with a crash. Short of breath, I wanted to get away as fast as I could. I was halfway down the stairs, when someone opened a cupboard. I froze, the air sucked into my lungs. He turned on the faucet and filled a glass. My heart echoed in my throat. The light from the open refrigerator reflected in the hall mirror. I saw a figure in the mirror and shrank out of sight. The back of my neck sent a rippling shock down my spine. That’s when I recognized myself in the mirror. Ice cubes splashed in the glass, the refrigerator door closed, and footsteps descended the stairs. My legs shook. I sat on the stairs until they stopped.
Leaving the house, I backed out, holding the storm door open with my bum. I carefully closed the front door, feeling it click shut. The wind swept away all sound. I crossed the porch and stood at the top of the stairs. The storm door crashed shut behind me. That’s when I raced home. Blind to traffic, I crossed the intersection and fled down Cedar Avenue and turned right on Buena Vista Road.
I waited outside until I’d caught my breath. My parents sat in the living room having a cocktail and a cigarette. Dad was reading his newspaper. When I removed my raincoat, I realized I still held the half dollars in my hand. Turning toward the closet, I dropped two into each pants pocket.
“Did you have fun?” Mom asked.
“It was okay, I guess.” How clever to act like it was an ordinary afternoon. After hanging up my coat, I leaned against the archway between the hall and the living room to take off my rubbers. The coins in my right pocket clinked together. I walked to the kitchen to be out of earshot.
“Don’t track water into the kitchen. I just waxed the floor.”
Returning to the hall, I hid behind the hall closet door. Trying to lift my shoe out of the rubber, I lost my balance and fell against the door.
The coins in both pockets sounded like bells.
Mom sat up. “What was that?”
Dad lowered his newspaper, now interested in what was happening. “‘Nothing?’ ‘Nothing’ makes a lot of noise.” He put his paper aside. “I’d like to see ‘nothing.’”
I removed the coins from my pockets. I walked into the living room, one rubber still caught on my shoe. I kept as far as possible from Dad.
“What are those?” Mom leaned forward. “Come closer where I can see.” She recoiled in surprise. “They’re silver dollars!”
“Half dollars,” I corrected her.
“Get over here.” Dad looked at them and then at me. “Where did they come from?”
I wished I was alone with Mom. She was easier to lie to. Why wasn’t Dad in the basement? “Billy gave them to me.”
“He gave them to you?” Dad said those words with an accusing disbelief. He looked me in the eye, then glanced at Mom. “I want you to give them back.” He returned to his newspaper.
“Do his parents know he gave them away?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to Mom. It seemed pointless to try and convince her the money was mine now. My feet were glued to the floor.
“Did you hear what I said?” Dad’s voice came from behind the newspaper.
“Then put on your raincoat and bring them back right now.”
“I’ll give them back tomorrow.”
My father lowered the paper again. “No. You’ll do it now.”
I took my coat from the closet and put it on. The wet seemed to be on the inside of it now. I sat on the stairs to put on my rubbers. The coins rattled.
I left the house and trudged up the street. What was I going to do? I couldn’t bring them back. What would I say? The wind blew hard against me and the rain ran down the inside of my collar. Walking in circles, I wondered why I’d taken them. I didn’t want them now. Why did I always do something that got me into trouble?
Halfway up the street, I came to the Donnelly’s house. No lights were on. Their garage was under the side porch. At the bottom of the driveway, a drain gurgled with rainwater. I walked down the incline beside a stone retaining wall holding the earth back. A row of hedges hid the cement foundation from view. I stacked the half dollars in a neat pile under a hedge. Giving them a last look, I covered them with wet leaves.
I walked around the block and returned home. My parents stopped talking when I came in.
“What did Billy say when you brought them back?” Mom asked.
“Nothing. I said you wouldn’t let me keep them.”
“I think that’s best. He shouldn’t give away something that valuable. Don’t you agree?”
I shrugged and went to my room to wait for dinner. Sitting on my bed, I listened to the rain beating against the windows. The wind blew the leaves in a circle that spiraled up like a cyclone.
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