If you ask my brother Rick his favorite color, he will look you straight in the eye and say, “Blonde.” I worry about him. The way he stands lately, the way he stares at people—he looks like he just took a long breath from a cigarette and now wants to pause a second before slowly blowing the smoke in your face.
Rick doesn’t smoke, of course, or at least I don’t think he does. He stands beside his friends while they smoke in the school courtyard, but he doesn’t smoke with them. Even so, I’m afraid he’ll start, and now and then when Rick isn’t home I’ve gone into his room and smelled his shirts for tobacco. So far, nothing.
He and I are the last ones left at home, the youngest in a big family where no one else has ever gotten into any sort of trouble at all, because we’re Irish Catholics living in Waterloo, Iowa, a place where, according to my English teacher Mr. Bering, it’s always the 1950s, no matter that it’s 1972 everywhere else. But Rick isn’t quite so mature as one might wish him to be. Or it may be he’s only going through a rebellious phase that’s perfectly normal. I don’t know what the truth is, but it makes me very nervous. I know myself the kinds of things peer pressure can do to a person, and if anyone in our family ever becomes a victim of such a malady, I’m afraid it will be Rick.
I’m fifteen, and thus have many thoughts but no place for them to go. I have friends, I suppose, but lately I feel far away. The girls I eat lunch with look at me sometimes as if there’s suddenly a large, green horn sticking out from my forehead. Even my best friend Bridget, whom I’ve known since fourth grade, seems at a loss, and lately I think she’s losing patience with me.
But somehow I can almost always talk to Rick, and this is a strange fact that I would never have predicted a year ago. Even today, if you saw us in the hallway at school, you would never think we were confidants, or even that we knew each other at all, because Rick will act very aloof when people are around. It’s understandable: Rick’s a senior now, whereas I’m just a sophomore. I don’t mind that he ignores me at school (it’s his way of preserving his manhood, I’ve come to believe) because I know that if I were ever truly upset—if I stood banging my head against the gym wall or something—that he would definitely acknowledge me as his sister, no matter how embarrassing the consequences.
I talk to him at night. On the evenings he stays home he’ll sit in his room listening to records, and for the past few months I’ve been allowed to listen with him. It started one day last spring when he asked who my favorite band was, and I said the Carpenters, and Rick shook his head and said, “We have a lot of work to do.”
In the early days, I was only allowed to sit on the floor outside Rick’s door, which he would leave half-open so I could hear the music. But since then I’ve been allowed to enter the room, so long as I sit quietly on his desk chair and don’t touch any of his things. Rick’s room is full of model ships that Rick’s been making since he was twelve. It used to be that when he was gone I would sneak in and look at the ships, which are very delicate and have little people onboard—pirates and Vikings and sailors, with tiny beards and eyepatches, and knives in their belts—which Rick hand-painted himself. It was a long time ago that I used to sneak looks at them, but Rick caught me once and has never forgotten. He doesn’t even make models anymore, and I haven’t the slightest desire to look at them anymore either, except for nostalgic purposes, but still we have this painful memory in the back of our minds.
So I sit on the desk chair, and when it first started I would hardly look around, and never touch anything. I would even rest my feet on the rungs of the chair and not let them touch the floor, and sometimes I would imagine I was balanced on top of a buoy in the middle of the ocean, and that any minute a big wave might spill me over into the water. These days I’m much more relaxed.
Rick is in love with a singer named Luka, who sings with the group Blue Mountain, so when her albums are playing I’m always silent. He lies on his bed, turned away from me, looking at the album cover. When one side of the record ends, he leaps up to turn it over, and when he glances at me I make sure my eyes are lowered and I’m smiling reverently, the way I do after Holy Communion. During other records, I’m allowed to talk.
Rick loves to give me advice, and sometimes I try to think of things he can advise me about, besides music. For instance, I have one problem that, according to Dear Abby, is very common among people my age. Still, so far as I can determine, I am the only girl at St. Mary’s who has it. It has to do with taking showers in gym class. In the girls’ locker room there’s only one big shower area, where everyone must stand together like cattle. Showers are mandatory, and it’s no use trying to sneak past Mrs. Friedhoff without taking one—she actually smells people as they leave.
One night I tell Rick about this, and he says, “What’s the deal? You’re all girls, right?”
I say yes. I feel sheepish.
He says, “So?”
I say, “I know it’s just adolescent modesty and I’ll outgrow it someday.”
“I guess girls have it worse,” he says. “Guys get used to changing their clothes in front of other guys, and it’s no big deal.”
“That’s really true?”
“Sure. It’s like you’re all part of the same team.” He pauses to think. “Unless you’re a fat kid or something. But you’re not a fat kid.”
“I’m a little fat.”
Rick shrugs. “You could be worse.”
“With girls it must be different,” I say. I know that, like me, he’s embarrassed by the whole topic. He’s trying to sound cool, but he won’t look at me. “I never feel like I’m part of a team,” I tell him.
“Are the other girls embarrassed?”
“I can’t tell,” I say.
“How do they look?”
“Well, you know,” I answer. “Like girls.”
He laughs his little high-pitched, cackling laugh, which always reminds me of Woody Woodpecker. “I mean, do they look embarrassed?” he says.
“Oh,” I say. “I don’t know. I don’t look.”
“There you go,” he says. “They probably don’t look either.” He lies on his bed, on his back with his hand behind his head, gazing at the ceiling as if it’s a sky full of stars. He seems utterly content, and for a while I am too. Some nights he’s cantankerous and restless. He sways back and forth on the bed as if it’s a cradle he wants to set rocking, and he hardly speaks. But other nights he’s a fine companion, and his room is like a bright cabin in the middle of a dark forest.
One day I’m in study hall, where everyone talks noisily to each other. Some people are even throwing things—just little bits of pencil eraser, but nevertheless it’s annoying. Mr. Upton, the study hall monitor, sits at his desk reading a paperback book. He looks as serene and undisturbed as if he’s sitting on a checkered blanket in a field of clover. I have no respect for him whatsoever.
Somebody turns to me, a pretty girl I know just vaguely. “Is that your brother, Rick O’Donahue?” she says, as if Rick is standing someplace nearby.
“Yes,” I say, humbly. All the O’Donahues have gone to Saint Mary’s and are more or less a legend by now. Every teacher who’s been here long enough has taught someone in our family, and now they all expect similar greatness from Rick and me.
“Is he a little strange?” the girl asks.
I’m taken aback.
“I mean,” she says, “I just heard from somebody that he got into a fight with a teacher.”
“What do you mean? You don’t mean a fistfight?”
“Almost,” the girl says. This is the longest conversation she and I have ever had. “I heard it was pretty wild.”
“I mean, like yelling and stuff. The teacher got really mad. I don’t know.”
“What was it about?” I ask.
She shrugs. She looks around the classroom as if searching for someone more interesting to talk to. “I don’t know,” she says. “But what’s his deal? I mean, he’s smart, isn’t he? But he hangs out with the stoners.”
“He’s not a stoner,” I say.
“I just wanted to ask you,” she says. She has long fingernails, painted pink, which she holds out in front of her now, her fingers straight and separate, as if she’s waiting for the polish to dry.
“I didn’t think he was a stoner,” she says. “Actually, I think he’s kind of cute.”
When she smiles, her eyes go crinkly, and suddenly I wish she were my best friend.
My friend Bridget hasn’t heard about the argument between Rick and a teacher. We spend our lunch hour spinning quarters in the cafeteria. Whoever’s quarter stays up longest wins. I’m the all-time champion of this game, but Bridget will always play anyway, to be agreeable. She is, in fact, the most agreeable person I know. If you say, “Do you want to go to the mall?” she’ll say, “We could.” Or if you say, “Would you like to play Yahtzee?” she’ll say, “We could.” Lately she’s driving me crazy.
Oh, but Bridget is my best friend, and I should be fair to her. I’m very hard to be with these days. I’m usually either sad or angry, and who knows why? And Bridget sticks around, even when I’m rude.
I’m always arguing with her about particular issues—mostly religious matters, because I know she takes religion very seriously. For instance, I’ll ask her, “What kind of God would make earthquakes, or war, or deformed people?”
She’ll say, “God didn’t really make those things.”
But God made everything, of course, and Bridget knows that as well as I do. So then she starts talking about how it’s the devil who makes bad things happen, in which case I just ask, “Well, what kind of God would make the devil?”
Or else I go the other way. I say, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek and to give all your money to the poor. So do you do that? Does anybody do that?”
Then Bridget brings up Mother Teresa (for the millionth time), or else Jeannie Caravaggio’s dad, who plays the banjo for people in nursing homes. But Bridget knows she’s doomed again.
“So, except for a very few people, none of us are truly Christians,” I say triumphantly. “We’re all sinners and hypocrites.”
But, of course, I don’t really win either. Bridget just waits until my speech is over. Then she smiles and says something like, “You want some Kool-Aid?”
We’ve spent myriad afternoons at Bridget’s house, because it’s close to school and usually empty. Her mother works outside the home because her father, I’ve come to infer, was a terrible person who left the picture when Bridget was a toddler. (Although Bridget will never talk about her father at all, I think he may be the reason she has a slight speech impediment.) We go into her kitchen and she puts a glass in my hand, and runs hot water over the ice cube tray. She fills my glass, and I just stand there, watching sadly, and thinking that maybe no one in the world will ever know the real me.
The day I hear about Rick’s fight with a teacher, I want to ask him about it, but I’m nervous. As I’ve said before, Rick is unpredictable. Then that night at supper, there’s a scene between Rick and my mother. My father is absent, of course—no one would ever think of having a scene with anyone else if my father was in the house. The three of us are eating supper, and my mother only happens to say that Dad’s coming home tomorrow and that Rick still hasn’t raked the back yard. My mother is deeply concerned about Rick and my father, and tries hard to eliminate any trouble between them.
Rick doesn’t say anything, but you can see his body tighten up. He stares at his plate. Then he starts shoveling food into his mouth in a very disconcerting manner.
“You know, I could rake the leaves,” I tell my mother. “I think it would be fun.”
Rick keeps on shoveling food while Mom and I look at each other.
“All right,” my mother says.
“I always wanted to rake leaves,” I say, glancing at Rick. “Remember how we used to make leaf forts?”
Rick bends even lower over his plate so we can’t see his eyes, and I keep thinking, over and over, that there’s no reason, no reason at all, for him to be mad right now. It’s only leaves, I keep thinking. I’d like to shout it out loud, in fact, right there at the supper table: it’s only leaves!
Then Rick looks at my mother and says in a very quiet voice, “You know, if the Pope allowed birth control, none of us would be here, and then you’d have to rake the goddamn leaves by yourself.”
Then he gets up fast and walks straight out of the house, without even taking his jacket.
You’d have to know my mother to see what a horrible scene this has been. She’s devoutly religious. She’s the sort of mother who buys little plastic pouches with rosaries in them, then safety-pins them to your pillowcase for your everyday convenience. All over the house there are holy pictures and crucifixes, not to mention all the calendars the missionaries send her. On the wall of her bedroom there’s a painting of Jesus, looking tired and sad but still quite handsome, that I’ve been in love with since third grade.
Also, those words—“birth control”—I don’t think anyone in our whole family has ever said them before.
But my mother just laughs. “Well, I guess he’s done with supper,” she says. Her hands shake when she reaches for the green beans, but otherwise we keep on eating, very politely, as if we’re acting in a play where the scenery has just fallen down but we’re trying to keep the plot moving along anyway.
I know my mother won’t tell my father about this. Then tomorrow, if I can get home before he does, I’ll rake the leaves, and it’ll all be fine.
You shouldn’t think that my father is a demon or anything. It’s just that he believes in a strict division of labor. And life is hard for him, because he’s only here half the time—he’s a train engineer and travels frequently—so that when he’s home, he feels he must rule with an iron hand. With the rest of his children he seems to have done a good job. They’re all respectable adults with good jobs, or else they’re housewives.
But Rick is another matter entirely. In the past year he and Dad have been going around and around—not fighting, exactly, because nobody fights with my father, but all the time defying each other in little ways. It started, I think, when Rick wanted to learn to drive. Nobody in our family has ever learned to drive before they were eighteen—this is in order to prevent accidents, and to keep us away from certain worldly temptations—but Rick wanted to drive at sixteen, when all his friends were learning. Needless to say, my father came down like a hammer, and Rick still hasn’t learned to drive. Recently Rick told me that now he will never learn, even after he turns eighteen, because he doesn’t even care about it anymore. Still, I know that when he wants to go somewhere, and his friends have to come pick him up every time, he feels a deep sense of shame.
The driving issue was the beginning, and since then things have gotten worse and worse. Rick hardly says a word when my father’s around. Lately Rick is copying a hairstyle that’s grown popular at our school. He’s growing the back of his hair into what they call a “tail,” and it’s as though he’s daring my father to say something about it. Rick plays his stereo too loud, and he doesn’t do his chores. And I truly fear there will come a day when my father will just up and smack him, though so far they just seem to be pacing around, sizing each other up, like dogs in an alley.
The night of the scene with my mother, Rick doesn’t come home until late. During the next few days, my father is home, so Rick isn’t around much. This is a real shame, I think, since my father’s brought home a present for Rick—a leather belt with the name “Richard” burned into it with a branding iron—and Dad doesn’t even have a chance to give it to him. I know the present is a sign that my father wants to make amends. He’s very nice to all of us the whole time he’s here. One night we even go out to play miniature golf—my father, my mother, and I.
By Monday Dad has gone again, and that night Rick stays home, and we listen to records. I want to tell him how nice Dad’s been, how Rick should give him more of a chance, how no problem was ever solved by running away from it. But I don’t want to get on his nerves. He seems happy tonight, and I’m determined not to spoil it.
Rick has a little metal recipe box that used to be covered with cheerful drawings of cupcakes and pies, along with the phrase, “Bake Someone Happy,” but is currently covered with gray duct tape. Inside the box, he keeps index cards that list the title, artist, record company, year produced, and date purchased of every album he owns. He is constantly updating the file, adding more information and rating each record according to his own system of stars. He goes through the cards now, and now and then he takes one out and writes something on it in his tiny, perfect printing style.
I know I have to say something, but I want to be diplomatic. “Do you remember what you said about the Pope last week?”
He looks at me. “Mom say anything?”
“She said you were finished eating.”
“But later I saw her make the Sign of the Cross, like three or four times in a row.”
He nods slowly, looking away. Under his breath I think he says, “Shit.” He closes the recipe box. “You still believe in the Pope?” he says. He smiles again.
Everybody knows Rick has problems with the Church. If you ask him, he’ll say he’s an “agnostic,” which means that, theologically, he can’t make up his mind. He still goes to Mass with us, but he slouches all through it. Sometimes he doesn’t even go to Communion. My mother has been saying novenas for Rick for months now. And I can’t help but think that this would be the worst guilt imaginable–to know that your mother is saying novenas for you.
Rick’s troubles with religion make me sad. Of course, I have doubts of my own, but I keep thinking I can handle them better than he can. I’m afraid that someday he’ll be out there in the cold world all alone, without a God to give him comfort. So I’m always trying to help him believe in things, if I can. Tonight, when he asks me about the Pope, I say, “I think the Pope is a very kind man who helps a lot of people.”
“He’s a relic from the dark ages.”
I pause, then try again. “But how can you look at a sunrise or an ocean,” I say, “without believing?”
“Mere phenomena,” Rick says, grinning.
Suffice to say that there’s no use talking to Rick. He’s like a happy tiger tonight, waiting to pounce on anything you might say next. “I just think that religion can be a source of great comfort,” I say.
Rick nods happily. “Religion is the opium of the people,” he says. He straightens the sheets on his rumpled bed and sits upright instead of lying down. He sits facing me, which I take as a sign we’re becoming closer siblings. Rick is really quite cheerful sometimes, after all, even when he’s telling you there’s no God.
“Rick,” I say, wanting to take advantage of his good mood. “Do you ever argue at school? With teachers?”
He makes a huffing sound. “Somebody say that?”
“God, are they talking about it at school? It was nothing.”
“Just one person said it.”
“Well, hell, it’s no big deal. Just biology class. Mr. Kelly’s annual speech about interracial marriage. You’ve heard that speech.”
“He does it every year–says how if blacks and whites get married, their children come out blotchy.”
He nods. “With black and white blotches all over them. He says it’s a genetic fact. It proves nature doesn’t like interracial marriage.”
“That’s really true?”
“Hell, no. It’s a bunch of crap. And everybody knows it’s a lie, but every year nobody says anything, like it’s all a big joke.”
“So what did you say?” I ask nervously.
“I just asked him where he got his information.”
“That’s all? Well, that’s not a fight.”
“Yeah, well. Then he starts naming a bunch of non-existent experiments—all total crap.” Rick pauses and laughs. “So I told him I had proof he was wrong.”
“What kind of proof?”
“That’s what Mr. Kelly said. But of course I didn’t have any proof. I mean, I didn’t go to the library or anything. So I just said the first thing I could think of.”
“I told him my dad was black.”
Rick starts laughing, so, after a second, I do too.
“So what happened then?” I ask.
“So Mr. Kelly says, ‘Son, I’ve taught all you O’Donahues for the last three thousand years.’ Then I say, ‘Yeah, but have you ever seen our dad?’ And of course he hadn’t.”
I nod thoughtfully. “That’s true,” I say. “I don’t suppose anybody at school knows Dad.”
“And that’s the whole story. Except the class was a little wild after that. It sort of brought down the house.”
“But why did you say anything at all?” I say. “Do you want to date black girls?”
“Oh, right, like I’m supposed to find a black girl at Saint Mary’s High School. It’s the principle of the thing. You believe in principles, don’t you?”
“Of course,” I say. “But I don’t want you to get in trouble. What if Dad found out about it?”
Rick laughs. “Now that’d be something,” he says.
He asks me to pick out an album I want to hear. So I go to the shelf and start looking through the records while he stands behind me holding the little card you have to stick between the albums so you know where to replace the one you’ve taken out. I pull out an album and Rick stares at it with a look of disgust, as if I’ve chosen the soundtrack from Oklahoma or something, so I start to put it back.
Then he says, “Just kidding,” and lets out his Woody Woodpecker laugh. He won’t permit me to take the record out of the sleeve or put it on the turntable myself, but while we listen to it, he gives me the album cover to study, while he tells me little stories about each member of the group. It’s really a very nice time.
I still go into his room sometimes, when he’s not there–not to be nosy but to make sure there’s no trouble. I smell his shirts for smoke, and I look around for other things—I don’t really know what, exactly. One day I find two Penthouse magazines between his mattress and box springs, but this discovery doesn’t upset me as it would have when I was younger, because by now I know that the awakening of sexuality is a perfectly normal phase of adolescence, especially for boys.
But one day I find something in his desk drawer that shakes me to the core. It’s inside his harmonica case, and it’s a cigarette which I think is made of marijuana. (You can see that it was wrapped by hand, and I don’t think anyone does that anymore with ordinary cigarettes.)
As we eat ice cream at the mall, Bridget tells me that I have a legal obligation to report Rick to the police. I tell her this is unthinkable. Still, I keep wondering if I should tell my parents about it—at least my mother, although I’m afraid it might break her heart. Or perhaps, I think, I should confront Rick myself. Things feel desperate and serious. I think this may be the first time I’ve ever truly been confronted by a matter of life and death.
So that night I decide to raise the subject, but in a roundabout way.
“Do any of your peers take drugs?” I ask.
We’re in his room, in our usual places. He’s lent me his Guinness Book of World Records, and I’m pretending to look through it casually.
Rick says, “My peers?”
I blush. “I just mean, you know, anybody you’ve ever met.”
Rick says, “Oh, sure, all the time. You can get high just walking through the boys’ rest room.”
“The smoke,” he says.
“I have a friend,” I say, “who I think may have a drug problem.”
“Not Frigid Bridget,” says Rick.
“No, someone else.”
Then he keeps asking who it is, until finally I lie and say it’s Julie Drugan, just to make him happy. Then he wants details.
“It’s marijuana,” I tell him.
“Oh, well, that might not be so bad.”
This is my chance. “I have heard of clinical evidence,” I say, “that links heavy marijuana use with extensive damage to many vital organs.”
Rick grins from ear to ear. He stretches out on the bed and kicks off his shoes. I myself look down into the book, at a picture of the world’s heaviest twins.
“Most heroin addicts begin with marijuana,” I say casually.
“I heard that too,” he says.
I take my time, leafing through the book. “Would you ever try it?” I ask him. With my head down, I look up at him through my bangs.
“I don’t know,” he says.
I’m not sure what to say then, so I sit there silently.
Then Rick says, “Can you keep a secret?” and I think, Hallelujah, and say, “Sure.” He goes to his desk and gets out the harmonica case and shows me the cigarette. I act shocked.
“Somebody gave me this,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll smoke it or not. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Don’t do it, Rick,” I answer. “It only leads to trouble.”
He lets out a snort, and puts the cigarette back in the case. “You’re such a little kid,” he says.
I’m cut to the quick. I want to say that maybe it’s true but I know a few things about the ways of the world. But I don’t say that, or anything. We just sit glumly until the record’s over, and then I tell him good night and go straight to bed.
Throughout the next few weeks, life is turbulent at our house. Rick and my father are in constant disagreement, and there is much unspoken tension. The latest thing is Rick’s tail haircut, which my father says makes Rick look like a hairdresser. Rick doesn’t answer when my father goes on like this, but at night when the two of us sit in his room, Rick is like a caged lion. He lies on his bed with his arms crossed tight against his chest. His right foot twitches up and down with the beat of the music.
Still, Rick and I get along well these days. For a while after our marijuana discussion it seems there’s a barricade between us, but gradually that falls away and we talk more easily. I begin to think that I may not need to worry. The marijuana cigarette remains untouched in his harmonica case—I check it nearly every day—and I start to think that even if Rick did smoke it, he might not necessarily become an addict.
One day Bridget tells me she’d like to ask Rick to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. I say “Go ahead,” but I know she won’t do it. I’m always annoyed with her lately—the tiny bites she takes when eating sandwiches, the way she is constantly polishing her glasses, all those boring Sundays at the mall. Maybe it’s just the change in the air as winter comes, or too much sugar in my diet, but I don’t sleep well these days, and I’m restless and dissatisfied with everything.
Usually my father is home only two or three days at once, but one time he’s here for a week in a row, and the whole visit becomes a long, silent fight between him and Rick. The worst comes on Sunday morning, when all of us are almost ready for church. My mother and Rick are still getting dressed, and my father and I sit at the kitchen table reading different sections of the newspaper. Then Rick comes in and searches through the pile of papers for the Parade magazine, and when he finds it he takes it into the living room.
My father says to me, “I don’t know, Nancy, do you think we ought to sit in the same pew with him?”
And I can’t help it—I laugh a little. Not because I think it’s funny, but only to please my father. He’s my father, after all, and he’s not really a bad person. He doesn’t mean everything he says. (Sometimes I think nobody ever means anything at all, but they have to keep talking anyway, just to have something to do.)
But right away I know I shouldn’t have laughed. I hear Rick, in the living room, crumple up the magazine. Still, it doesn’t occur to me that anything might happen, since nothing, really, has ever happened before. But then I hear Rick running up the stairs, and in a couple of minutes he stomps back down, and for just a second my dad and I look at each other in puzzlement, and maybe even fear.
Rick comes into the kitchen and stands there. I can see right away what he’s done—he’s chopped off the “tail” with a scissors, and now the back of his hair looks ragged and wild, with wisps of the tail still dangling from the sides. He stands there for a second, while nobody speaks, and then he throws the cut-off tail onto the table, turns and stomps out of the kitchen, then out of the house.
I wait for my father to jump up and chase him, or at least to yell after him, but Dad just sits there at the kitchen table, staring at the clump of hair as if he can’t figure out what it is. He looks so gray and empty that it suddenly occurs to me that maybe he’s finally getting too old to chase kids, too old to yell, too old to rule with an iron hand.
When my mother comes downstairs, dressed for church, all my father says is, “Looks like it’s just three of us today.”
My mother doesn’t blink. She smiles and says, “Then I guess someone’s going to miss out on Dairy Queen.”
They look at me brightly, and suddenly I’m so mad at both of them that I want to start ripping up the newspaper. But habit brings a smile to my face, and before I even know it, I hear myself saying, “Dairy Queen, oh boy!” and laughing like a child.
Rick comes home again, late in the afternoon, and that evening he eats supper with us. Of course, no one talks about what happened or about his ragged hair. We’re tense and quiet, but I keep thinking that in a few days things will get better. That night I go to bed early, but I can’t sleep for thinking about all the sadness in the world.
And that’s why I hear it when he slides the letter underneath my door. I wait until he tiptoes away before I get out of bed and pick it up. It’s three in the morning, and I shiver to think of what he might want to say to me at such an ungodly hour. The house is completely silent. I take the letter to the window and read it by streetlight.
“Dear Nancy,” it says. “Of course you know why I can’t stay here. Also you should know that I’ll miss you a lot. Please take care of my record collection and stereo, and replace the stylus in about three months. Love, Rick.”
No light seeps from beneath his bedroom door. So I creep downstairs and find him in the kitchen, in the half-dark, standing in front of the open refrigerator and drinking milk from the carton. He’s wearing his heavy coat and stocking cap. His big yellow backpack sits, stuffed full, on the table. He jumps when he sees me. Then he nods and closes the refrigerator, so that the kitchen gets even darker.
“Go back to bed,” he says, and straps on the pack.
In a whisper, I ask, “Where are you going?”
He says, “I can’t tell you, but it’s a good place and I’ll be fine. I’ll try to keep in touch.”
He brushes past me, into the living room. I follow and stand beside him as, gazing out the living room window, he pulls on his gloves. The world outside is dim with the orange-gray light that means snow on the way.
“Will you still be in town?”
“I can’t say,” says Rick.
“Will you still go to high school?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s hard,” I say, “to find a high-paying job without a high school diploma.”
“Don’t worry,” Rick says, and hugs me.
I have trouble hugging him back while he’s wearing the heavy coat and backpack, but once I get my arms around his waist I hate to let go. I think to myself that if I just held on tight and started yelling, my parents would race downstairs and keep Rick from leaving. I stand there, with my arms locked around Rick’s waist, thinking that idea over. But in the end I know I could never do it, and I have to let him go.
He opens the front door and whispers goodbye.
“Rick,” I say, before he can leave.
“Rick, please promise me you won’t get lured into male prostitution.”
He laughs. “You’re a strange kid,” he says, and disappears.
For a long time afterwards, I sit on the living room couch, listening to the furnace and refrigerator as they switch on and off and on again, and to the ticking of clocks all over the house. Then I go upstairs to Rick’s room and look around in the dark at the model ships, the records, the little record file. In his desk drawer, the marijuana cigarette still sits in the harmonica case. I try to see Rick’s leaving it there as a sign that he doesn’t mean to get into trouble in the outside world. I take the cigarette from his room, so that the police, if they come, won’t find it. And I mean to throw it away but instead I decide to keep it, hidden on my bookshelf behind Jane Eyre. I don’t believe that I would ever want to smoke it myself, but I think it can’t hurt to keep it anyway, in case I ever change my mind about things.