Authors: Adele Griffin
But their driver didn’t appear to care about anything except getting them where they wanted to go, and quickly. The cab wheeled around corners and leaped down empty roads with a carnival recklessness before dropping them off at the end of a narrow unmarked street.
“Let me take the duffel awhile,” Rock said, pulling the bag off Cliff’s reluctant shoulder as they began walking down the shadowed street. The smell of New Haven still hung strong and bleak in the air.
“You think we’re in any danger?” Liza asked, scrunching her face and trying to judge the compressed townhouses and broken sidewalks that banked the narrow road.
“We’re fine,” Rock answered before Cliff could make another Thomas Jefferson comment. “No danger at all. Imagine how bad it would be to live here, all smashed up together like this. You could hear someone flush the toilet all the way down the block.”
“Makes you appreciate Sheffield,” Liza said softly.
“Country living in general,” Cliff put in. “Lemme see that Seamus paper again, Liza.” They all had memorized it; it was mostly for ceremony that Cliff unfolded the paper as they approached the end of the block, facing the dead end. They looked to the left and counted off three houses from the end.
“It’s a real house,” Liza ventured hopefully.
“Sure is dark,” Rock said. “Maybe everyone’s sleeping.”
“One way to tell.” Cliff poked the Seamus paper into his front pocket. “You guys keep back a little and just let me scope it out first,” he ordered. He began walking briskly ahead of the other two.
Liza jogged right at Rock’s elbow, closer to him than she’d been all morning. She smelled like a mixture of Certs and apple shampoo and the Linwood Drive tar that always stuck to her sneakers. And underneath all those smells was her just plain, good Liza-skin smell.
“Hey, I just thought—you’re gonna miss the Easter hunt,” Rock mentioned. “With Mrs. Fjorsgaard doing her Easter goose calls.”
“Ha,” Liza answered without listening. She was watching Cliff’s back, waiting for a signal.
“And the quahogging contest at Moose Hill Pond, and the preliminary heats at the yacht club,” Rock continued recklessly. “Didn’t Indio Whepple say you could crew for him this year?” Now a good couple of yards ahead of them, Cliff jumped from the road to the sidewalk and then up the steps leading to the nondescript row house. Rock and Liza stopped on the curb, watching.
“Indio … Rock, shut up, why you trying to get me feeling all homesicky?” Liza made a face, dismissing him, and then stood on tiptoes, her eyes keeping careful watch on Cliff’s movement.
“Okay, come on, you two,” he whispered, glancing around and then waving them in with cautious hand signals, the way you’d help someone to park a car.
“We can’t, we’re on lookout,” Rock hissed back, but Liza leaped toward Cliff, taking her apple smell with her and leaving Rock with no choice but to follow.
The stairs ended with a square porch, which Rock, Cliff, and Liza gathered on, standing in a troubled clump to face the closed front door and pulled-down window shades.
“You better do the knocks, Liza.” Cliff stroked his hand along the door.
Liza didn’t have to consult the Seamus paper. Her knocking was brisk, like Mr. Faella’s knocks just before he opened a classroom door—more like a warning than a request. Rock could imagine her secretly practicing on her desk at school, her bedroom wall, maybe even on the table in front of Arlene and Timmy during supper time, preparing for this moment.
She took a step back and they all stared at the door. One, two, three seconds. No answer.
“Louder, you think?” Cliff ventured.
“Let me do it.” Rock raised his fist but Cliff’s own hand leaped to cover it, using it as leverage to push Rock backward.
“She knows how to knock on the stupid door herself, okay?”
Liza knocked again, much louder this time, then clamped her hands together like a prayer.
“I see a sofa,” Rock said, squatting low to peek through the ruler-thin space where the window shade stopped. “And a lamp, I think. It’s kind of dark.”
“You see anything looks like somebody’s even living there?” Liza asked. She crouched at the next window. “Like if there’s a dog or a cat, or some food out on the table maybe?”
Cliff knocked the code now, his fists slamming so hard against the wood that Rock’s own knuckles tingled. Rock started pounding on the window.
“Hey, Seamus!” he hollered. “Hey, anyone! Anybody home?”
“Rock, what is with you?” Cliff fumed, checking Rock with a jab in his shoulder. “You want to wake up the whole neighborhood, get us all in trouble?”
“Nobody’s there, kids.”
They whipped around at the sound of the voice from the street. An old, folksy-looking man with a softly wrinkled face shaded by a battered fishing hat stood on the sidewalk, watching them. His hand was attached by a leash to a wet-eyed dog, but now both man and dog had stopped their walk and were regarding Cliff, Rock, and Liza with mild curiosity.
“Oh yeah?” Liza asked. “How do you know?”
“Police car was here a couple weeks back, looking for runaways and dope sellers. Loaded up a paddy wagon full of youngsters. Like a big old dog catcher, eh boy?” The man gave a friendly smack to his dog’s backside.
“So who used to live here?” Cliff stepped away from the door and looked up at its paint-chipped walls.
“Used to be the old Gruskin place, till Freida passed. Now they’re waiting for her son to sell it, but he’s all the way down in Palm Springs. You kids looking for anyone in particular?” The old man tugged back his hat to get a better view of them.
“Kid named Seamus,” Liza said. The man twisted his mouth in thought, then shook his head.
“Nope, nope, never heard that name,” he replied. “And if you-all kids’re runaways, you better run along back home.” He slapped his palms together emphatically, as if he were starting them on a race. “ ’Cause just about everyone from New Haven to Stamford knows that the old Gruskin place used to be a hideaway house for youngsters. They been talking about it again in the paper, must have been only a week back. A letter to the editor about how we need to crack down on our kids, teach ’em how to be responsible, accountable. Miriam Shaw’s the one who wrote it; I figure she’s been trying to get a letter to the editor printed in the
roundabout twenty years now.”
He glanced down at his dog. “Ain’t that right, Bailey? So my advice is—go on back home. Make up to your folks, stop buying and selling dope, eh? Your folks’ll give you another chance. Parents’s like that. Full of chances. I got four boys myself, so I know.” He gave a gentle pull at Bailey’s leash. “You-all have a good morning.” He waved and they waved back, watching him amble down the street now steeped in the milky light of morning.
“Wicked weird guy, right out of
The Wizard of 0z.
” Liza sniffed. She turned to Cliff. “What do we do now?” Her voice sounded helpless. Babyish, Rock thought. Not the usual Liza voice at all.
“We should head back to New Haven,” Cliff said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “It’s gonna be a kind of a long walk, almost three miles. But maybe we’ll see a cab.” He lifted his face to squint and frown at the rooftops. Rock knew Cliff well enough to understand his disappointment that their plan had failed. Cliff hated to fail at anything, which was another way he was like Thomas Jefferson. A real perfectionist. Seeing his brother look so miserable made something shift and soften inside Rock.
“Good idea. We get back to New Haven and then we’ll decide what we’re gonna do from there,” Rock said. “Good plan, Cliff.” Even though it wasn’t really a plan at all. But there was nothing else to do. Nowhere else to go but in reverse.
Liza had brought along some fireball candies, which helped them keep their mind off the long walk and their empty stomachs as they began the trudge back to New Haven. They played the same game they always did: who could stand the hot-spice flavoring longest without spitting out the candy.
Cliff lost easily. “Got no need for any extra pain,” he joked, studying the fireball pronged between his thumb and index finger. Liza looked pretty determined, Rock thought, checking her out of the corner of his eye. Her nostrils were flared and her eyes watered, but then she spat the candy into her hand with a breathless cry of “How can you
“ ’Cause I can take anything,” Rock said simply.
“Round two after we finish these. And no rolling it inside your cheek,” Liza added, a new rule that made the next game even tougher, but Rock won it again.
“My brother’s a sucker for pain,” Cliff said cheerfully.
“I can take anything,” Rock repeated. “It’s not about being a sucker.” He tried to sound casual, to keep the defensiveness from his voice. “It’s because I have more tolerance and more discipline,” he said. Cliff laughed.
“So I guess that makes you a big prizewinner, hey? You get to turn out just like Cowboy George.”
“Who’s Cowboy George?” Liza asked.
“He’s home on the range.” Rock wriggled his eyebrows to make. Cliff laugh, which he did, but then Rock felt strange; to joke with Cliff seemed like a betrayal of their father. “Are you a betrayer of this family?” their father had asked Cliff that long-ago evening, when Cliff had wanted to telephone Aunt Louisa.
“No, I’m not,” Cliff had answered.
Rock kicked at a hunk of brown ice. Maybe Cliff had lied; maybe he was a betrayer. Maybe he was trying to make Rock a betrayer, too.
“Home on the range?” Liza’s quizzical look brought her nothing more than silence from both of them. “Fine, be that way,” she said. She then darted ahead and began turning a series of elastic backflips. It was incredible to watch, just like a gymnastics special. She flipped her body over and over, picking up speed, her outline burnt black against the morning sun. Her limbs spiraled like a pinwheel, not quite human, slowly twisting her farther and farther away.
The boys’ applause and whistles became the only communication for the rest of the walk back.
“Let’s hang out in New Haven for a little while before heading back home,” Liza said when they reached University Avenue. “Walk around. Do stuff. It’s still early.”
Cliff and Rock exchanged a glance. “You’re okay to head back to Sheffield?” Cliff asked.
“I got to be,” Liza said. “But not just yet.” She was quiet for a moment, looking down at her sneakers as she walked. “I say we stash my duffel in one of these safe-deposit boxes we saw at the train station, and then we get breakfast, maybe check out a CD store, see a movie or something. We got a little time and some money, right, Cliff?”
Rock’s legs felt limp as overcooked noodles but Cliff was already steering them in the direction of the train station.
“Yeah, cool idea,” Cliff answered.
“It’ll be like the school field trip you missed out on,” Rock grumbled, but Liza seemed not to notice and she squeezed his elbow.
“Only more fun,” she said.
They ate breakfast at a restaurant called Toot Sweet, Liza’s choice, where the bread came in a basket with a plate of butter roses and free mini-jars of jelly, and the cloth napkins had been folded into shapes of spiky white plants blooming out of their empty water glasses.
“Eat whatever you want,” Cliff commanded. “Even the eggs Benedict. My treat.”
Rock ordered steak and eggs. Liza ordered Belgian waffles. Cliff asked for a double order of eggs Benedict and a cappuccino, which arrived in a froth of whipped milk and cinnamon sprinkles. Then Rock and Liza each wanted their own cappuccino, although its bitter taste disappointed Rock in the same way as the first time he and Cliff had split a six pack of beer last year. He drank until it was all gone, though, same as with the beer.
“What kind of life do you think you guys’d want after, like, school and stuff?” Rock asked. He felt like he should say something mature while he sipped his cappuccino, even if it tasted bad. Cliff’s eyebrows shot up at the question and he leaned forward conspiratorially, his chest pressing against the table.
“I know what,” he said in a grave fortuneteller’s voice. “I’m moving back to San Diego, where it’s always warm, and I’m gonna get a job working for an architectural firm. I’ll buy an Austin-Healey and I’ll live by myself, in a custom-designed, air-conditioned mansion that smells real clean, like the inside of a Superfresh. Know what I mean? That cold lettuce smell.”
Rock felt himself staring at his brother, not quite sure whether to enjoy Cliff’s confidences or to feel angry that Cliff’s future life involved running so far away from the rest of the family.
“My turn.” Liza sat up straight and folded her hands in front of her. “My plan’s fixed. I’m going to Los Angeles and work for a catering company, so I can get into those parties thrown by the big movie producers. Then, once I get friendly with ’em, they’ll give me movie parts, first as one of those extras, but then it’s only a matter of time before I land my big break, you just watch. I bet I could play a blind person real good. Look at me, don’t I look blind?” She unfocused her eyes to gaze emptily at Rock.
“I guess,” he said. He felt uncomfortable. It seemed as though Liza and Cliff had real ideas, plans they’d worked out way before Rock had asked his question. Now they both were looking at him expectantly.
“Well, I’m joining the Marines.” The thought burst from his mind and mouth at the same time. “To fight for my country.” And although both Cliff and Liza nodded approvingly, Rock didn’t feel settled by his own plan. The Marines sort of fit Rock’s personality, but seemed to leave out a chunk of him, too. He stared down at his cappuccino and hoped someone would say something about how the Marines wasn’t quite the right fit for him, but no one did.
They finished their breakfasts, pocketing the extra jelly jars, and after the check was paid, they explored New Haven. Cliff bought a Knockout Drops T-shirt for himself and a pack of cigarettes for everyone to split. They moved without direction, watching the stores open for business, their casual wanderings out of step with other people now striding purposefully through their Saturday morning.
“It’s only a quarter of eleven,” Liza said. “And I feel like the whole day should be over already. I’m beat enough, that’s for sure.”