Thursday, December 21, 2006


The walls of Robert’s room were covered with ribbons and banners. Most of them were from sports—tennis, badminton, and hitting—and others were in honor of his academic achievements. His newest banner was for "Outstanding Achievement in Math": His mother had given it to him earlier that morning, telling him he was getting this one because of the creative way he tried to figure out problems.

All of the pictures in Robert’s house were of him and his parents, except for the one with the dog. One was of the first time he had taken a bath, but he could not remember them that one because he was so young in it. His favorite picture was the one with the dog. It had been taken one year ago, when he was playing in the back yard. His parents had gotten him a dog a few weeks earlier, and he had been showing it around the house and the yard, but especially the back yard because that was where his swing set was. In the picture the dog was sitting in Robert’s lap while they went down the slide together. That was the only picture he got to take with the dog, because the next morning when he got up, his mother told him it had run away. She also reminded him he could never get another dog, and when they said this, he started to cry. He was not crying because he could not have another dog; he was crying because other than his parents, the dog had been his best friend. When he looked at the picture of them on the slide, he remembered how happy the dog had made him. His parents reminded him of that every time they looked at pictures together.

Soon after the picture with the dog was taken, Robert had started playing sports. It had been his father’s idea, and at first Robert did not think he would be any good, but his father told him to just try playing to see if he liked it, and then they would worry about being good later. His father told him that if he tried something and liked it, then he could always end up getting good at it, no matter what anyone else said. Robert had wondered why his father said that, but he had started playing sports anyway.

There was no school for the rest of today because his parents had to go outside and Robert did not teach himself school things, so he could do any of the things he liked to do in the house or the back yard. Some of his favorite things to do inside the house were painting, playing with his slinky on the stairs, watching birds when they came to the feeders outside, and watching some TV shows. He did not play video games.

Playing in the back yard was more fun than playing inside the house, though. Outside, he could run for a long time without stopping, dig and build castles in the sandbox, and play with balls. He could not play his favorite ball games when he was by himself, because his favorites were the ones he played with his father, but there were still some good ones he had figured out. One was where he would throw the ball as far as he could and then run and catch up to it as fast as he could; sometimes he dove to catch up to the ball, because he liked diving and was good at it. Sometimes he got dirty when he played, but his mother never got mad at him when he got back yard dirt on himself because back yard dirt would not hurt him. He also liked not having to worry about getting wet sometimes when he was in the back yard, like people did when they went outside—the roof over the back yard kept water from getting in, just like it kept the bad air out. But it did let the sun in, and he liked the sun. When he was younger, his mother had told him every day that if he went outside, the bad air would get him and he would get hurt. She did not have to tell him anymore, though, because he remembered it all by himself now.

When Robert was going past the window, he saw that some boys were playing a game outside. There was a field with grass in it next to his house; the field was like Robert’s back yard except that it was outside. The game the boys were playing looked like hitting, but they were doing other things, too. After one of the boys hit, he started running. And after he had been running for a while, he dove, like Robert did when he played the game where he chased the ball. There were lots of boys playing, more than just the hitter and the thrower—when he played with his father, Robert was always the hitter and his father was the thrower. The thrower’s job was to throw the ball so that the hitter could hit it. Robert’s father was a good thrower, but the boy who was throwing when Robert started watching was not a good thrower, because sometimes the boy who was hitting missed the ball, and the thrower’s job was to throw the ball so the hitter could hit it. When the hitter hit the ball, he started running and the other boys on the field chased after the ball and then threw it to each other. Robert did not know why they did that.
He did not know how long he had been standing at the window when the ball came through it. Usually he kept good track of time, but watching through the window was different. It was like looking at a picture, except that the things in it were moving. It was different than watching TV, too, but he was not sure how. The ball broke the window and Robert started crying, but not because the window was broken. He was crying because the bad air was going to get inside now and he was not fast enough to run away from it. There were little pieces of glass all over the floor. They sparkled when he looked down at them.

The boy who had hit the ball through the window came toward the house. He said that he was sorry for breaking the window and that they would pay to have it fixed, but Robert did not stop crying when the boy said that. The boy had thought he would, so when he did not, the boy asked Robert if something else was wrong.

"Outside’s inside," Robert answered.

The boy did not understand what that meant and asked Robert if he wanted to come out and play with them. He thought that if Robert played with them, he would forget why he was crying and stop. Robert continued crying while the boy looked at his eyes and his face.

"We really would like you to come out and play with us," the boy said. "I bet you’re really good at baseball, aren’t you?"

Robert did not know what baseball was, which meant that it was something from outside and bad, because his mother had told him everything that came from outside would hurt him. But even though he was still crying and felt bad because he was crying, the air had not hurt him yet. The only reason he felt bad was because he was crying, not because the outside had hurt him. When he was a little boy, his mother had told him there was bad air outside and it would hurt him.

"Don’t you know how to play baseball? We can teach you if you don’t. It’s a lot of fun. Wouldn’t you like to try?"

Robert started to climb through the window, because he thought that maybe it was only the air that came through the front door that was bad. His mother had always told him he could not go out the front door, but he could not remember her telling him not to climb out the window. If his mother had not told him not to do it, that must mean it was okay to do. The boy who had hit the ball told him to stop, because there was still glass in the window. He told Robert it would be easier to go out the door.

Once he saw that Robert would not come out through the door, the boy took off his shirt and cleared the glass from the window frame. Robert saw what he was doing and took off his shirt, too, because he wanted to help. They cleared the window together, and then the boy helped Robert climb outside.

He was standing outside and was not wearing a shirt, and nothing was hurting him except for a piece of glass that was stuck in his back. The boy saw it and took it out. Robert’s back was bleeding a little where the glass had been, but he did not notice it because he could not see it and he was outside. There were too many other things to notice now that he was outside.

The sun was warm on him, like when he was in the back yard, but it was different too. When he was in the back yard, the fence was there to keep the bad air out. It was tall, too, so no one could see him except his parents. It was okay for his parents to see him without his shirt on, but it felt different now, because other people could see him. Other than some of the people who came to visit his parents, he could not remember anyone who was not his mother or father seeing him, especially not with his shirt off. But some of the other boys were not wearing shirts either, and that made him feel better. The way the air moved was different, too. It went back and forth and all over, instead of just moving when he ran through it. He liked how the air felt now.

"I bet you’re really good at baseball," one of the other boys said. He was tall and had a black hat on his head. "We’d all like to see how far you can hit the ball. You’ll probably hit it a lot farther than any of us can."

The other boys nodded and agreed with the boy who had just talked, but Robert did not say anything because he did not know how to play baseball. They looked at him and waited, thinking that every boy knew how to play baseball, but Robert did not; he knew hitting, but that was only part of baseball, and he did not even know what to call the other parts. His father would have explained everything to him if he were there.

"Come over and stand here," the tall boy said. Robert came and stood by the boy. "Now, where we’re standing is called home plate, and straight in front of us is the pitcher," he pointed to another boy wearing a hat, "and he’s going try and throw the ball over the plate, but you’re not going to let him. You’re going to have a bat, and you’re going to hit the ball with it. Think you can do that?"

"I can hit," Robert answered.

"But that’s only half the game," another boy continued. He was wearing a green hat. "After you hit it, you have to run to the bases, and while you’re doing that, all of us are going to try and catch the ball and throw it to the base before you get there, and if we do, you’re out. It’s kind of like it’s you against all of us. But if you get to the base before the ball does, you’re safe. So, you’re going to hit the ball, run as fast as you can, and then dive into the base before the ball gets there. Got that?"

"I like diving."

"But you’re not quite ready yet," the boy who was going to throw the ball said. "If you dive without a shirt on, you’ll get yourself all dirty. Here, you can wear mine, because you don’t want to dirty, do you?"

The boy gave Robert his shirt and helped him put it on, and another one gave him a bat. Then they told him to stand next to the plate and wait for the pitch. The boy who threw the ball could throw it very fast, but he did not with Robert hitting. Instead, he tossed the ball underhand and slow, but Robert still missed the ball. He was used to the way his father threw, which was different from the way the boy threw. All but one of the boys clapped and told Robert he would hit a home run next time for sure. Robert did not know what a home run was. The one boy who did not say anything was not wearing a hat. He was the only boy who was not wearing one.

The thrower boy took some steps toward Robert and threw again, and this time Robert hit the ball. He swung as hard as he could, and the ball rolled to a stop just in front of the thrower. After he reminded Robert to start running, the thrower tossed the ball to the boy at the first base, but before he tossed it, he nodded. The ball went over first base and landed on the ground, and a few seconds later, Robert dove into the base, just like the boys had told him to do.

He stood up and stopped, because no one had told him what to do after he dove. Then one of the boys told him to keep running, to try and beat the ball to the next base, so he started running to the next base, and the ball would have beaten him, but the boy at that base dropped the ball and kicked it away, and then they told Robert to keep running again. The boy at the third base caught the ball, but when he did, he ran toward the pitcher, like he was going to hand him the ball, and then they told Robert to keep on running to home plate.

The boy at home plate was wearing a mask and a hat, but the hat was turned around. He jumped to catch the ball and caught it, but he jumped just when Robert was running past him, and by the time he landed and tried to tag Robert, Robert had already landed on the plate.
The boy who had hit the ball through the window shouted, "Safe!" and then all but one of the boys started clapping and cheering. They told Robert what a good hit he had made and how fast he could run, all of them except for the boy who was not wearing a hat.

Just at the moment when Robert dove into home plate, his parents came home. They saw him lying on the ground and dirty, and heard what they thought was laughing. Some of the boys were laughing, but the reason they were laughing and the reason Robert’s mother thought they were laughing were different. Robert’s father touched him on the shoulder when he walked past him, his hand resting there for just a second. He was going to talk to the boys. Robert’s mother made him stand up and walked him back inside. She only held on to him with one hand, because the other one had to keep her hat on her head.

Once they were inside, Robert’s mother said, "What were you doing out there? Don’t you know it’s dangerous out there? Haven’t you listened to me?"

"I was safe, Mama," Robert said. "They told me. I was safe."

"No, Robert. You were not safe. Those boys were lying to you if they said you were."

Robert thought about what his mother had told him. He said, "I don’t like people who lie to me."

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Happy Birthday?

Tomorrow’s my birthday, and today at work I was thinking about what a birthday really means, what it is you’re actually celebrating. Basically, I concluded that my birthday is a celebration of the fact that, for whatever reason, I managed to not die for yet another year. This is such a momentous achievement on my part, apparently, that I deserve to be rewarded with presents in commemoration of it. Celebrating birthdays has to be an American idea. Where else could the mere fact that you didn’t die qualify you for gifts and accolades?
It’s not like staying alive for another year is a completely free ride, though. No, our family and friends realize the deal we’ve got going on, and so every year they conspire to cook up the most unhealthy, most heart-clogging food possible, and then watch us to make sure we eat it. I’m talking, of course, about the birthday cake, which is basically sugar and artificial food coloring piled together in different mixtures, one on top of the other, and then topped off with an additional layer of sugar, the frosting. The time when they make sure we eat the cake, of course, is called the birthday party. You always thought they came over to your house because they wanted to celebrate your life with you, but no, it’s actually so they can make sure that if you actually do survive and make it through another year, you’ve earned those presents they’re giving you. They would still give them to you just because they feel obligated to, but this way, they can know that you not dying for another year really is an achievement.
But for some people, of course, just clogging your arteries with cake isn’t enough of a challenge. What these people do–I’m sure you know the kind I’m talking about–is that they sneak into your house when you’re not there, hide behind the furniture or maybe in the closet, and they wait for you to come back. And when you do come back home, these people jump out of their hiding places and scream at you. You thought they did that because they wanted make your birthday extra special by giving you a surprise party, but that’s not what’s really going on. Actually, they’re giving your heart a final stress test before they have to hand over their presents. The thing is, though, people who do surprise parties aren’t all that smart, because if they really wanted to make you earn your reward for staying alive another year, they would figure out a way to surprise you after the party, because that’s when you’re all full of sugar and cholesterol. And they’d still have time to take back their presents if you don’t make it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I Speak in Code

I speak in code
a cleverly constructed combination
of white words and black pauses
hiding among the colors I can’t control.
My focus fractures and my message meanders,
waylaid by specters of previous
mistaken miscommunication;
and my code shrinks and deepens,
becoming less apparent and more permanent,
until I’m sure you won’t understand.
And I keep speaking in code,
writing messages only for myself
because they make me feel special.
I never suspect you’d do the same.
I would speak plainly,
without distortion or degradation or defense,
but I’ve forgotten how, if I ever even knew.
I speak in code
animated by the permanent pressing possibility
that someone might hear,
someone speaking the same coded language.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Where Fairies or Elves or Munchkins live

Reggie had been asleep a minute ago, but he was wide awake now. He had been sleeping in the field behind his house; it was one of those warm summer days, the kind where the sun is just everywhere and it seems like everything is making a sleepy buzzing sound, when really the best thing to do is to find somewhere outside quiet and where no one will bother you, and lie down and take a nap. It was on days like this that Reggie wondered why he used to cry and scream when his parents told him he had to take a nap.
Even though his watch alarm was not supposed to go off for another forty minutes, Reggie was awake now because of the noise. He still had not looked to see what had happened or where it had come from, because when you hear anything that sounds like it might be an explosion, what you are supposed to do is roll onto your stomach, tuck your legs under you, and put your arms on top of your head. You’re supposed to do this because if anything gets blown up into the air by the explosion and then falls on you, you want to make sure it doesn’t hit any of your really important stuff, like your brain or your heart or your knees. Reggie was not sure why his knees were supposed to be so important, but he had them tucked under his chest anyway.
Just a few seconds after the noise, Reggie heard something fall and land in the ground. It sounded like it was only about twenty feet away, but he did not look up to check because he was afraid something else might fall and land even closer than the first thing, whatever it was. After a few minutes of nothing falling, though, Reggie decided it was probably safe now, or at least as safe as it was going to get, and he stood up and looked around.
On top of the hill that was about twenty feet away, where before there had been only grass and dandelion puffs and little buzzing things, there was now a door. The sun was in his eyes when he looked at it, so he could not be sure what kind of a door it was, but he was certain that it really was there. And that it had not been there when he had fallen asleep.
When he got closer to it, he saw that it looked pretty much like an ordinary door, except that there were some black marks and stuff like that around its edges. In all the stories he had read and movies he had seen about kids like him finding things like this, the door or whatever it was led into a magical world filled with fairies or elves or munchkins. If this door was one of those kinds of doors, then maybe the noise he heard earlier was just the noise doors make when they make a bridge from this world to where the fairies or elves or munchkins live, and the black around the corners was just what happens when the door pushes through into this world, like the sawdust a beaver makes when it cuts down a tree. That would explain everything.
Except that Reggie could not see a way to open this door. For one thing, it did not have hinges or a frame or anything, so it really could not swing open like doors are supposed to, and for another, it was stuck about two inches deep into the ground. Maybe the door was not really a door at all, though. Maybe it just looked like a door but was actually a window or a portal or something, and when he walked into it he would actually be transported to the magical world, instead of just walking into a door. That happened sometimes, too.
But apparently this door was not a portal or something like that, because when he walked into it, nothing happened. Actually, it did bend back a little bit, but other than that, nothing happened. Maybe he had done it wrong, though. Sometimes the portals only work when you run straight into them, or when you are believing really, really hard that you will actually be transported into a different world and not that you will just run smack into a piece of wood. So he took five steps back, made himself think that he would soon be in a wondrous land, or at least somewhere other than the meadow behind his house, and kept on thinking those kinds of thoughts while he ran straight at the door as hard as he could.
Here’s what happened when Reggie hit the door: It fell over and landed with a thud on the ground, and so did Reggie. He rolled over and saw everything blurry and weird for a few seconds, like he was wearing soap-bubble glasses, which he thought might have been his eyes adjusting to the light of the new world he was entering, but really it was just because he had smacked his head. After he got up and stopped being dizzy, he flipped the door over and looked at the grass that had been underneath it, because sometimes you have to put the thing or door or whatever in just the right place before the portal will appear. When that happens, the door is not a portal anymore; it is the key that unlocks the portal. But there was just smashed grass and dandelion fuzz under the door. The buzzing things must have escaped just in time. At least, he hoped they had.
Then, because nothing else had worked so far, Reggie thought that maybe the door was not a portal or a key or some other kind of thing that had to do with a magical world full of fairies or elves or munchkins, but that instead it was something that let him see new things in his own world, because that happened sometimes, and that the blurry vision was just his eyes adjusting to all the new and wonderful things he could now see.
So he looked around the meadow behind his house, but he did not see anything new or magical there. There was a squirrel running around the trunk of the tree in his backyard, but he saw squirrels there all the time. Then he looked down at his shadow, not for any particular reason, but just because he happened to do it, and it disappeared for a second. He looked up to see what was going on, and there was a cloud floating in front of the sun, so nothing was going to have a shadow for the next few minutes at least. The cloud looked like a box of cereal with the labels all whited-out, which was kind of interesting because clouds don’t usually look like that, but it was not amazing or magical or anything.
Reggie wandered around the meadow for a while longer but did not see anything that had not always been there. He looked at a dandelion puff and saw how even though it looked like nothing was holding all the little pieces of fuzz together, they were actually connected to the stem by little hair things that kept them from just flying away, at least until the wind blew them away. He had never noticed that before, but that did not mean it had not always been there, just that he had never looked closely enough to notice it until now.
He sat really still for a few minutes and a butterfly landed on his leg. It did not stay there for long, but it was still long enough for him to see lots of things, like how you could kind of see through some parts of the wings but not other parts, and how small the actual body part of a butterfly really is, that had always been there but that he had never noticed before.
Then, because it was still a really nice day and he did not want to go inside yet, and because he still had not seen anything really magical, Reggie walked through the meadow to where it ended because a road went through it, and then he followed the road back toward his house. This way went through the part of his town where all the businesses and restaurants were. He thought that he would have to walk past something marvelous there, because everything there was always new and exciting anyway.
The first thing he saw was that the warehouse next to the furniture store had exploded or something. It looked like a lot of stuff had been burning but was not anymore, and he could see all the way from the front of the building, where there was a big hole, through to the back of it. There was a fire truck parked next to it, and because the firemen were just kind of standing around and not doing anything, Reggie went up to one of them and asked what had happened.
“We don’t know that for sure yet, but we think that there was a gas line in the warehouse that had a leak in it, and someone must have left something burning in there, probably a cigarette, and after a while it ignited the gas, and the building exploded.”
Reggie’s first thought was how cool that would have been to see, but instead of saying that, he asked, “Was anyone hurt?”
“No one was in the building when it went up, but a lot of the stuff inside the building was thrown into the air by the explosion. We’ve been finding chairs and things like that all over town. Some of it went pretty far. As far as we know, no one’s been hurt by any of that, but we’re still checking around to make sure.”
“Were there doors in there?” Reggie asked the fireman.
“Yeah, I think there were. Did you see one?”
“I was taking a nap and it woke me up. I thought it was a magic door or something.”
The fireman did not know what to say to Reggie about that, but he did not have to try and come up with something because just then another fireman came up and said, “We’ve been all over town and haven’t found anyone injured yet, but there is one boy no one’s been able to locate yet. We’re still working on finding him.” He saw Reggie there and said, “This was a dangerous thing that happened today.”
“I was asleep when it happened.”
“Who’s your new friend, Quancy?” Quancy was the name of the first fireman.
“I’m Reggie Welton, sir. He doesn’t know my name because I didn’t tell him yet.”
The fireman who was not Quancy gasped when he heard Reggie’s name. “Did you say you’re Reginald Welton? Are you Benjamin and Angela’s son?”
“Yes, sir. They’re my parents. Why?”
“You need to go home. Get there as fast as you can. Your parents will be there.”
He did not know why he was supposed to, but the way the fireman had acted made it seem really important that he hurried, so Reggie ran all the way home. It was not really that far, and he liked running anyway. He was hardly even out of breath when he got there.
Reggie’s mother was waiting on the front steps of the house, and he could see that she had been crying. “Reggie, where were you?” she asked. “There was an accident downtown, and we didn’t know where you were. We’ve been worried sick that you were hurt. Your father’s out with the police looking for you right now.”
Even though she sounded mad, Reggie’s mother kept hugging him while she talked, like she was scared of letting go of him. Mothers do things like that sometimes.
“I was just out in the backyard. I told you, didn’t I?” “You said you were going to take a nap.”
“I meant that I was going to do that in the backyard. I thought you knew that. I’m sorry. Why were you so scared?”
Reggie’s mother told him to go to his room. At first he thought that was his punishment, but when he got to his room he knew what his mother had really meant. The house felt strange, different somehow, as soon as he went inside, but he could not figure out why until he went into his room and saw that his bed, along with the whole rest of the wall, had been cut in half. Stuck into the floor was a headboard for a bed, but it was not the headboard for Reggie’s bed. That one was just regular wood with a few curly designs along the top of it, except that now it was mostly splinters. But this headboard, the one in the floor, had all kinds of things painted on it. There was a forest, a bright one, and in some of the trees there were houses with tall people with pointed ears in them. They were small, but you could tell their ears were pointed. On the ground some short people and a few taller ones were walking and looking around, but they could not see the people in the trees yet.
Reggie had not read about those people yet, but his father had told him about them. He said that Reggie could read about them when he was a little older. He thought he was probably old enough now.
Once he had stopped laughing, he went back outside to tell his mother about what had happened. His father was back by now, too. He told both of them about the noise, and the door, and the squirrel, and the firemen, and even about the little hairs that keep the dandelion puffs together in a ball. They all agreed that he had seen some unusual and even amazing things, and that he had had quite an adventure.