Anything We Want
It was one of those nights. I slept soundly until around three in the morning, got up to go to the bathroom, then I couldn’t get back to sleep. I went back to bed tired as hell, but I guess my head was awake. The random thoughts that make up dreams were coming to me when I was conscious, and driving me crazy. I tried every trick I knew to get back to sleep: trying not to think about anything, but that can’t work. I tried to force thoughts onto other things, things I could control, but the moment I started to fade, the random thoughts would be back to keep me awake.
I even tried knocking myself out by taking ten deep breaths, then pinching my nose and trying to force air out. That knocked me out, but brain activity woke me back up immediately.
I was sleeping when the alarm went off, but I don’t know how long I was under. I shut the noise off instead of hitting the snooze button, and finally slept.
Dana didn’t try to wake me up; rather I became aware of him in my room when he was picking through his bag for clothes. I opened an eye and saw him there, and he happened to glance my way. He quickly put the bag on the floor and started to stand. “Sorry, I was trying to be quiet,” he said.
I wiggled around onto my back, my eyes begging to close again, but I held them open and tried to smile. “You don’t have to go. Get dressed and call me when breakfast is ready.”
Dana grinned, “Breakfast is ready. You can eat later, but it’s loud down there, so I’m up.”
I felt the comfort of my pillow, my comforter and blanket, the nice sheets, and almost went back to sleep, blessed sleep. I did not, though. Instead I rolled to the right, to the edge of the bed, and pushed my legs over, then sat up. I was uncovered then, and wearing just a tee shirt and underpants. I picked up the remote and turned on the television, and the middle of a Cocoa-Puffs ad. I looked at Dana, whose hair looked wet, so I didn’t have to ask him if he was done in the shower. Instead I grunted, walked to the closet where my robe was hanging, and left for the bathroom without another word.
As soon as I left my room I heard voices downstairs, and it sounded like my father and Dana’s mother were having a fine time. They were both loud and cheerful sounding, so I hurried along lest I miss something.
Done in the bathroom, I pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt in my room, then went downstairs, where things had quieted down. Dana was at the table sipping a glass of milk, his dirty breakfast plate in front of him.
Dad smiled when I walked in, and asked, “Hungry? Dumb question. We made waffles, and we have eggs. Both?”
The room smelled good, and despite the ton of hamburger I had the night before, I felt hungry. Waffles I could take or leave, but they were ready, so I said, “I’ll have a waffle, and can I have soft-scrambled eggs?”
“Coming up!” Dad said, and he put a waffle on a plate for me. “Meat? Bacon or sausage, or both?”
I sighed. “Dad, I’ll make a sign, okay? You don’t have to ask every day of the world. You know I’ll eat anything that’s not weird.”
Dad’s eyebrows went up, and he grinned, “You eat some pretty weird things.”
“Dad, that’s when we’re traveling. Nobody in Vermont or Boston ever offered me a crispy-fried slug. That was in Thailand, remember? Where the seafood soup was as hot as straight Tabasco sauce?” I snickered at a memory. “Remember that guy, Scuza Me?”
Dad laughed, handed me my waffle with two sausages and some bacon, then turned to Elenora. “We went to dinner at a place in Chaing Mai, in Thailand. They sat people at big tables, so we were with a lot of people. Our waiter was this young kid, and every time he came to the table he said, ‘Scuza me.’ He went, ‘Scuza me, rice?’, then ‘Scuza me, beans?’ and ‘Scuza me, chicken?’” Dad chuckled, “It was just one of those things. We all started saying ‘scuza me,’ and it was kind of funny.”
Elenora gave Dad the glassy-eyed look of someone who hadn’t traveled.
I took my plate and looked at Dana. “Any milk left?”
He gave me a scowl, then smirked. “Nope. Unless you call that one-percent stuff milk.”
My turn to frown. Two-percent milk is tolerable, but one-percent is what Ally drinks. To me it tastes like milk-colored water, which it basically is. Still, it would be better than water with waffles and sausages, so I went to get the carton out of the refrigerator. I knew I’d been had when I saw a jug of regular milk almost a third full. I took it back to the table, and had to suffer Dana’s silent glee. I stuck my tongue out at him, and dug into my breakfast.
Elenora tipped my eggs from the frying pan into my plate, then she and my father left the room with their coffees.
Dana leaned close and asked, “Want to hitch over to Albany?”
I looked at him, incredulous. “To what? You thumb rides?”
“Yeah, sure. All the time.”
I almost choked on a piece of sausage. My parents, my schools … every single authority I’d ever been under … had warned me about hitchhiking, like asking a stranger for a ride was a certain death sentence. Dana was in front of me, alive in every way I could think of. “Why aren’t you dead, then?” I stopped my question there, thinking I may have been misled.
Dana looked surprised, which made my question seem even more stupid to me. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
I took a bite from my plate, and said, “Rides with strangers are bad, aren’t they? I’ve been taught that since I could understand a sentence.”
Dana seemed thoughtful. “Maybe in the city, I guess. Out where I am, you take any ride you can get. I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
I had a fork full of egg in front of my mouth, but I put it back on my plate and said, “Different world, I guess.” I looked at Dana, “You really get in cars with strangers?”
Dana blinked, then grinned. “Oh! I get it.” His grin turned to a smile, “We don’t have strangers. It’s mostly people from around, and you know who they are. Sometimes tourists, and they pick you up ‘cause they’re lost.” His grin came back, “It’s not like there’s a lot of cars to start with.” His smile faded, “I don’t think I’d get in with some scary person. You can always walk away.”
I said, “Anyhow, no. If you want to go to Albany, I’m sure Dad will give you a ride, but don’t you need a plan?”
Dana looked down and mumbled, “I wasn’t really serious. Someday I’ll get there, though, and I will have a plan.”
I had a mouthful that I had to swallow before I could even smile. “I can help you plan, if you want. I think I’m good at it.”
Dad and Elenora showed up behind Dana right then, and Elenora put her hands on his shoulders. “Paul, we have something for you,” she said. “Dana wants to present it, so take it away, Baby.”
Dana blushed a little, then stood and walked over to the counter behind me, and when he came back he had a box in his hands. He said quietly, “It was your idea, so you get the first one.”
I took the box, which was probably eight inches by ten inches, and another eight inches high. It weighed nothing, and I was curious about which idea won me a prize.
It was a hat. Not exactly a baseball cap, but like an old fashioned one, without the high front that new ones have, and it had a button on top. It was beige corduroy with a dark green visor, and an embroidered logo. It read, “Danamat” in dark red letters outlined in brighter red, with a yellow and orange thing like sideways lightning below that, and “Stockton, Vermont”, embroidered in green that matched the visor, and was outlined in yellow, under the lightning.
I held it in my hands, re-reading what it said and admiring how classy it looked. Then I looked around and chirped, “Danamat? I …” I snickered, “This is beautiful. You could probably just sell hats and make a go of it.”
My father smiled and said, “There’s more to this story. Show him, Dana.”
Dana held up a piece of legal-sized copy paper, and the design of the hat was drawn there in crayon, of all things.
“You?” I asked, incredulous. “You’re an artist, too?”
Dana shrugged, “You never asked. I do more than ski.” He held the paper out to me and said, “Here. You can have this, too.”
I took it. Close up, it was crude on form, but the colors on the hat were a pretty exact match, and that was the clever part. I said, “Thanks. I’ll have it framed.”
Dana said, “There’s one more thing,” and he took the box from me. He pulled out a piece of cardboard, underneath which was a shirt. He held it out: a white polo shirt with a breast pocket. It had the same logo as the hat. “Your uniform,” Dana said proudly.
I smiled when I took it, then put the hat on my head and held the shirt up to me. Elenora went, “Whoo!” while Dad and Dana clapped. I just felt pleased, and couldn’t stop smiling. Most of what was going on up north was happening without me, and I think I might have easily resented that. I didn’t, though, because I’d been busy, too. My sudden involvement in things at school, and the resulting new friends and acquaintances, had my mind on the here-and-now in Brattleboro.
There was Lisa, too, and she was more like a magnet. For some reason, I suddenly remembered my pencils, and said, “Wait a second,” while I ran off to get some.
I’d been selling pencils to anyone who would buy them for ten days. The company that produced the pencils did a nice job. They were classy in the school colors, and anyone who bought ten of them got a nice commemorative box as well. Actually, anyone who bought the last of any ten got a box, too. I’d jacked the price from what the company recommended, too. They’d suggested twenty-five cents per pencil, and two bucks for a box of ten, which I’d doubled. That was predatory, I know, and I bought pencils out of my own pocket when I knew someone really wanted them, but didn’t want to pay that much.
The pencils were a hot item, though, if you can picture that. Students wanted them, and teachers wanted them. The administrative staff bought a bunch, as did the kitchen staff and the custodians. I had a branch ‘office’, if you will, at the Board of Education Building, and I had to stop nearly every day to bring a new supply. Pencils were already a profit center for the committee.
They probably wouldn’t be important in a different year, but right then they were a tangible piece of Jamie Jenks, and the popularity of the pencils belonged to him, not me. Those pencils wouldn’t be used; they’d be kept in drawers, shoeboxes and scrapbooks, maybe in picture frames after the dance.
I tumbled down the stairs with a box of them, determined that everyone in the kitchen should buy one or many. I stopped at the door and said, “These are the pencils we’re selling to get money for the dance.” I held one out horizontally so they could all see the color and the lettering, and they came close. “They’re fifty cents each, and ten for four dollars. If you buy ten, you get the box, too, and it’s a really nice box.”
Dana looked at me and asked, “Fifty cents for a pencil?”
Dad said behind him, “We’ll take five boxes, Paulie. You have that many?”
I looked at my father and said, “Last ones. That’s twenty-five bucks, please.”
Business completed, Dad clapped his hands and said, “So! What’s on the agenda? Did I tell you? We’re invited to the Timeks for ribs tonight. That gives you all day to do something.”
I thought, then asked, “Can Dana use your bike? I can show him around for awhile, then we can meet the other guys.”
Dad bowed to Dana, “My bicycle is your bicycle.” He lifted his face like a preacher, and put up his hands. “Take, ride. Please don’t molest.” He looked at us and grinned, “Have a good day. Play safe.”
We got the table cleaned off, and Dad sent us on our way, making a big deal out of how he’d clean the kitchen in our absence.
The weather was the first surprise. Dana and I had dressed for a spring day, and it was warmer than that. We didn’t need coats, and we didn’t need jeans. I lent Dana a pair of shorts that I hadn’t worn, and we left wearing shorts, tees, and sneakers, and of course my new hat.
Given the time of year, the day was surprisingly: bright, warm, and even slightly muggy.
My bike is two years old, well-used, and somewhat cruddy. Dad’s bike is also two, but rarely used, and he keeps it under a tarp in the barn. It’s looking good. I uncovered it and held the handlebars out to Dana. “You know how to ride one, right?”
He smirked, “Yeah, do you? Where we going?”
“To town sound good? I can show you around quick, then we can do things later.”
Dana didn’t think it over. “You first.”
I hadn’t been on my bike since fall, so I took it slow out to the road, made sure Dana was beside me, then we took off.
Of course, the road to downtown took us right by the road to Lisa’s house, so I detoured. Aldo was in the driveway cleaning his own bike when we pulled in, and he smiled briefly at me before giving Dana a suspicious look. “Hey, Paul,” he said. “Who’s your friend?” He eyed Dana again, as if he didn’t know what to expect.
I balanced off my left foot and said, “This is Dana. He’s from up north in Stockton.” I looked at Dana and said, “This is Al Mongillo. Aldo. He’s Lisa’s brother.”
Dana was straddling his bike, so nobody was in a position to shake hands. Dana said brightly, “Hi, Al. I’m Italian too … Dana Morasutti.”
I thought it was humorous, because the moment Dana mentioned he was Italian, Aldo’s look morphed into a gentle smile. “Paisan!” He glanced at me, then grinned at Dana, “Don’t let these Irish guys go corrupting you.” He put on a gangster accent. “You want some lasagna, maybe some manicotti, dis is da place. Unnerstand? We got a lime kiln; we can make pizza wit a capital ‘P’, just like Wooster Street.”
Dana got off the bike and put it down. He smiled nervously at first, then brightened. “I get it!” He looked at me with wide eyes, “You know, I didn’t know I could unnerstand Italian until just now. Ain’t dis sometin’?”
I looked at Al, not knowing how he’d take to teasing, but he just laughed happily. Al and I had never had a problem between us, but we’d never really warmed to each other either; yet it took Dana all of ten seconds. I wanted desperately to say I smelled something, but I didn’t. I asked, “Is Lisa around?”
Aldo grinned at Dana while pointing at me, and said, “Horn dog!” He looked at me and said, “You missed her. She’s in town.”
“By herself?” I asked.
Al said, “Nah, she’s with that Arizona girl.” He gave me a look and asked, “Man, does that girl have a pair, or what?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Regular airbags,” and chuckled.
Dana snickered too, but Al’s eyes went wide looking at Dana, and he looked like he was going to say something.
Dana let out a sudden screech, and my head snapped to look at him, only to see that giant cat, Archie, with his paws stretched nearly to Dana’s shoulders, and planted firmly against his back. I shooed the cat away, which I probably shouldn’t have. A good chunk of Dana’s shirt left with the cat, and I could see scratch marks opening up on his back.
Dana didn’t have a clue until he turned around, and his hair was standing on end, as was the cat’s. I was working up a laugh, and when Dana saw the giant pussy, he nearly fell over backwards. Al was right there and pushed Dana back to vertical, and he asked, “What? You never saw a kitty-cat before?”
Dana’s finger wobbled nervously as he pointed at Archie. “That’s a kitty cat?” He suddenly looked bemused, and mumbled, “I’ve seen smaller bears.” He knelt down and held his hand out, and Archer took a careful step closer. Dana seemed smitten, “Hey, kitty. Wow, you’re a big one. I never saw a cat like you.”
He turned his head up to me and Al, and said, “It’s beautiful! Boy or girl?”
Al said quietly, “He’s a boy. His name is Archer, or Archie; he doesn’t care. He’s a really smart cat.”
Dana was back to the cat, who got close enough for Dana to stroke his head, then he started rubbing the side of his fat face against Dana’s hand. Dana talked softly to the cat as they bonded, and I looked at Al. We both smiled. There wasn’t a lot to say, and it wasn’t long before Archie got bored and trotted off.
Dana got to his feet, looking after the cat, then he smiled broadly, but not at us. “See you, Archie.” He turned around and asked incongruously, “Am I bleeding?”
He was, a little bit from a scratch, and Al took him inside to borrow a shirt while I found a sunbeam and enjoyed its warmth. Spring is a fickle season in Vermont, and no matter how balmy the morning was, it could easily turn to rain, or even snow before the day was out.
I didn’t care what it might do later. I pulled my shirt off and leaned back against what was left of the Mongillo’s wood pile. I closed my eyes and turned my pale face to the sun, and felt the warmth all over the front of me. I knew I wouldn’t be alone like that for more than a few minutes, and it didn’t matter. All I needed were those few minutes to put my winter-self into perspective, while summer beckoned me from the other side.
It wasn’t long before Dana and Al came back out, and Al made a wolf-whistle when he saw I had my shirt off. I grinned and struck a pose. “You like?”
Al just shook his head, but Dana grinned. I did a double-take at his shirt, which was blue on white, and said simply, “I feel a sin coming on.” The ‘I’ was shaped like a pitchfork, and the ‘n’ at the end went on to become a devil’s tail.
I pointed at Dana and grinned at Al. “That’s great! Where’d you get it?”
“A present,” he said. “From Lisa. I don’t know where she found it.”
I pulled my own shirt back on and asked Al, “Want to come with us?”
He shook his head, “No, sorry. I’m going fishing with some guys. I’d ask you, but we already have a full boat.”
I smiled, because I didn’t have to be the one to say no. I don’t really like fishing. I mean, it’s fun for a little while, but everyone I ever go with wants to stay until they actually catch a fish, and I end up bored.
Dana and I said goodbye, then took off to town. It was the perfect day to just cruise on a bike: the kind of weather that makes being on a bike fun to begin with.
Dana hadn’t been to Brattleboro before, and I suppose it was the big city to him. He showed an active curiosity about a lot of things, so progress was slow while I told him about things I knew, and admitted my own ignorance about other things. We parked our bikes in a rack behind a bookstore and set off on foot, entering the store through the back door. It was a small store, with popular books in the front, while the main part had a heavy bent toward philosophy and psychology. I intended a shortcut to the street, but Dana held back to look at the books in the racks.
He seemed more amused than interested by the titles, and pulled one out for me to see. The jacket was bold yellow, and the title was Mummification of the Human Mind, which gave me a chuckle, and also interested me enough to read the blurb.
I should have stuck with laughing at the concept, because the contents were some blather about public education, and how wrong it is for our society.
I grinned at Dana. “You read this stuff?”
He was looking at the blurb himself, and shook his head, frowning. “No. Not this. It’s a good title, though.” He grinned at me and asked, “Doesn’t your mind ever feel mummified?”
I snickered, “Mostly, I guess, but I only started public education when Mom and Dad got divorced. I think I felt more mummified in private school.”
Dana chuckled, and kept looking at the books. I asked, “What? You like this stuff?”
He seemed surprised, “What, this? Nuh-uh, not really.” He cast an admiring glance at the racks we were between and added, “It’s nice they have it here, though.”
I don’t really know why, but Dana struck me funny right then. “Nice they have it?” I gurgled.
Dana looked at me, then laughed himself. “I talk funny sometimes. That’s not what I mean. I sometimes say funny things.”
I looked at him evenly and said, “I have a shovel if you want to dig deeper.”
He slapped my shoulder. “Prick.”
I said, “ Maybe I’ll write a book someday, like a how-to thing.”
Dana grinned, “Like, How to be a Dickhead in the Modern World?”
I laughed out loud, and proclaimed, “That’s it! That’s my title. That’s me!” I looked at Dana, “You think I’m a dickhead?”
Dana shrugged. “Not really. I think you think you’re a dickhead.” He looked off, and before I could respond he said, “You don’t have to admit to that. It’s just things you say sometimes.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m probably a dickhead. Right now, I don’t care. I just want to get out in the sun again.”
Dana looked around. “Yeh, it’s kinda gloomy in here.”
We left with a nod to the clerk, who was admiring her nails, and were on Main Street in the bright sunlight.
Dana looked around, seemingly impressed by the stores and activity. After spending time in Stockton, I was impressed too. Brattleboro, small as it is, has some life in it, and the full storefronts prove there is a lot of hope alive in town.
Dana wandered off to the right, so I followed behind, and he was immediately captivated by a craft shop with silver jewelry in the window, along with some ceramics. He turned a hopeful look to me and asked, “Can we look inside?”
“Sure,” I said, giving a more critical look at the window while I followed Dana inside. To be honest, jewelry does nothing for me at all, at least not in display cases. Some people wear nice, simple things that look good on them. Ornate things like those in this particular window don’t impress me, but some of the ceramics had nice colors.
+ + + + + + + +
As my mother’s son, I should really be a better shopper, but I’m not. I like shopping with her, especially on foreign trips, but on my own or with someone else, I prefer sitting on the bench out front. I do remember being with my mother and Allie in Moscow, riding a city bus, when my mother called out loudly, “Wooo-ooo! Stop this bus, mama!” Things happened so fast they dazed me, but when we were off the bus and it drove off, my mother proudly pointed out a street sign for Arbat Street, which is the Moscow mecca for crafts, folk art, fine art, and boutique shopping. The sign was in Cyrillic, but we’d all practiced sounding that alphabet out.
Even I had fun there. There were tables along the street piled high with Russian military gear and trinkets, handicrafts, clothes: everything under the Russian sun. I bought one each of watches from the Russian Army, Navy and Air Force. They cost a dollar apiece.
I was loaded after just a block, wearing a bearskin coat that trailed behind me, and which had huge pockets that were filled almost instantly with remnants of a communist USSR that was no more. I bought a bag with lots of pockets and zippers to carry more things in, and that was soon full, too. It was about then that I spotted what I didn’t expect to see: McDonald’s! Right there on Arbat Street in Moscow.
For all I’d bought, I still had a huge wad of rubles in my pants pocket, so McDonalds beckoned, and it was a big place. When I got to the counter, I realized that the Cyrillic pronunciation for Big Mac is Big Mac, so I ordered, and was soon seated by the window, feeling self-conscious because a bunch of Russian kids were looking at me. They were no doubt put out that some young American kid was wearing one of their silver bears bigger than himself, all laden with loot from their empire, and I could still afford Mickey D’s.
One of them approached me, when I was picking at my remaining fries. I looked up at him, a kid my age or a year older, and didn’t say anything.
“Hello,” he said. I nodded. He went on, “Do you play bess-ball?”
I nodded, leery. “I play. It’s baseball.”
He smiled, and timidly slid in opposite me. “I want a bess-ball hat like yours. If I do what you want, can you get me a bess-ball hat?”
I couldn’t believe it, because that was one wish I could grant. Allie loves the Yankees, and has a corresponding disdain for the Red Sox. One thing she always travels with is a load of Yankee caps, and she uses them to make it look like people from Albania to Argentina, from Bangladesh to Bulgaria, from Timbuktu to Tibet are, each and every one of them, avid Yankee fans.
I grinned at the kid and asked, “What’s your name?”
His eyebrows went up. “I’m Kiril. You are?”
“I’m Paul,” I said. “Let me finish my fries.” I looked at the kids he was with. “Do your friends like baseball hats, too? If I get you some, will you pose for a picture?”
Kiril was beside himself with glee, and when I finished my meal a minute later, his gang followed us outside. I said, “Stay here. I’ll find my mother and …”
Kiril interrupted, “No, no. You stay here, we find her more fast.”
I shrugged, and sat on a stone bench beside a little girl, maybe five years old, who was apparently left there to guard me. I hadn’t even described my mother to Kiril, but he was back shortly, leading both her and Ally, and trailed by a gang of Russian kids
My mother looked worried, but that look faded into a grin when she saw me wearing enough to clothe a platoon of Russians, my pockets bulging, and my sack ready to burst. My sudden shopping prowess seemed to engender a sense of familial pride in her.
I explained what Kiril and his friends wanted, and Ally looked dismal. “They’re in the hotel. Every one of them.”
“What hotel?” asked Kiril. “I get them for you.”
Ally said glumly, “The Gamma-Delta. It’s far from here.”
“Izmailovskii Park? Not far,” Kiril said. “We take the train.”
I was all for that. I hadn’t seen the Metro yet, and it was supposed to be one of the highlights of the trip. Well, I’d seen the entrances, but we hadn’t gone underground.
I looked at my mother and Ally and asked, “Can we?”
My mother seemed doubtful, given the number of kids gathered around us, but all Ally saw were the heads of around twenty potential Yankee fans in Moscow. “Of course we can,” she said triumphantly, giving Kiril a prod. “Lead the way.”
We left Kiril and company out in front of our hotel, because they weren’t allowed in. It’s not that it’s a snooty hotel, because it’s not. It is part of the enormous complex built for the Olympics back when the U.S. boycotted the games. It consisted of at least five identical, colossal buildings in a truly vast concrete plaza. Mom always gets me my own room when I go with her and Ally, and at Moscow prices, two rooms in that beat-up place, with breakfast, ran five hundred dollars a night.
We went upstairs, and I was relieved to dump my purchases on my bed. I was sweating like a horse, and quickly changed into dry clothes before we went back down. Ally and I carried stacks of Yankee hats.
We didn’t see the kids at first, and stood there looking around the enormous plaza. It was only a moment when we heard a whoop, and they soon surrounded us. Ally was clever enough to have Yankee hats in many styles, lest someone accuse her of setting these things up, and we handed them out indiscriminately. Kiril and his pals could fight over the various designs if they had to, but they could do that after Ally took pictures.
Other kids saw hats being passed out, and they stood in line without asking. Ally didn’t care, and we had Kiril tell the newcomers that they had to stay for pictures as a thank you for the hats. When the last Yankee hat was gone, there was a new line of kids waiting, but they dispersed quickly when our security duo approached, with their little red books in hand. Dad had insisted on security for us on this trip, and an agency provided Ivan and Buch, two former KGB agents, to shadow us. They were good, and we were only vaguely aware of their presence most of the time. I’d seen them on Arbat Street, smoking cigarettes while they leaned against a wall, and there they were again, appearing out of nowhere just when they needed to, and not seeming to anyone else like they were there on our behalf.
Ally spent an hour taking pictures of little Russian Yankee fans, and Kiril kept abetting her by calling other kids over to put on a hat, but I finally asked him to show me around, since he knew the area.
That day turned out to be the high point of the trip, because all of us had fun interacting with people who really lived there..
The city is fascinating, and the museums have enough sculpture by Michelangelo to make his work seem almost commonplace. We never found a meal to brag about, though, and the hotel food was simply boring, but we never got sick. We had only a few words of Russian, and most people we met only had a few words of English, but communication was never a problem, nor did we once feel any resentment toward us as Americans.
That afternoon with Kiril and his friends was the best, though. Kiril’s English wasn’t too bad, but there were gaps in his knowledge, and a complete sentence was rare, even with Russian mixed in. I only knew some tourist words, but we pointed at things, and with the help of Mom’s little tourist translator book, we figured it all out. It was Kiril who managed to get it into our heads that the biggest flea market in all of Russia took place every weekend right where we were standing. That meant a lot that next Sunday, when Mom and I bought so much artwork and commie junk and handicrafts that she had to get a shipping company to come pick it up at the hotel, and send it home to us.
Ally made Kiril her point of contact, and sent copies of all the pictures for him to distribute the best he could. She got a dozen or more thank-you notes in return, and never forgets to remind me of how polite our Russian friends are.
I count Kiril as a friend. We’re not buddy-buddy, but we always respond when the other writes. We correspond in something like a middle language, where we sort-of understand each other. I believe that Kiril is a year older than me, so sixteen, and he now stands six feet tall, and has antlers like a bull, though that last bit is a rough translation at best.
He signs his name, Kiril, in English, and I sign Pavel in Cyrillic, and I always smile when I hear from him, visions of a bright day in Moscow forever fresh in my mind.
+ + + + + + + +
I’d been daydreaming while I stared at some earth-colored mugs that I liked. Then someone behind me suddenly poked me on both sides of my ribs at once, which made me squeal while I went up on my tippy-toes.
I’d startled Dana, and when I spun around it was to face a laughing Arizona, with a snickering Lisa right beside her.
“Jesus!” I said, agitated. “You jumped me!” Then I smiled at Lisa and said, “Hi. Where have you been all my life?”
She seemed thoughtful for a second, then smiled back at me. “Just waiting. Waiting for you to come along.”
Zoner made a face, then noticed Dana and asked, “Who’s this hunky-dory? Do I know you?”
Dana immediately fixated on Arizona’s chest, which was closer to him than the rest of her, and I snickered. To his credit, he turned his eyes to her face before most guys would, and said, “My name is Dana.” He pointed at Lisa and said, “I’m with Paul.”
I snickered, and felt Lisa’s hand trying for mine, so I turned my attention to her, and that was a treat. The early touch of summer worked for girls, too, and Lisa was wearing an open, pale-green shirt over a white tank top: a little white tank top. Oh, my. She also wore faded jeans that were far from skin-tight, but were worn enough to show off her shape anyhow. Then there was her smile, which made everything else fade into insignificance. I smiled as happily as she, and got a quick kiss for my effort.
I’m a creep sometimes. Lisa asked, “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
This year? “Sorry,” I mumbled, turning to Dana, who was blatantly checking out Zoner. “Hey, Dana?” I said just loud enough to get his attention. “This is Lisa. Lisa Mongillo – Aldo’s sister.”
Lisa took a step forward, and Dana looked surprised for just a second, then smiled. He held his hand out and said softly, “Hi Lisa.” He looked her up and down and mumbled, “Gee, you look exactly like what Paul told me you did.” His ears reddened, “That’s good, I mean … I mean … I just … I … Paul’s a good describer.”
Lisa smiled at Dana, and they held each other’s gaze until Zoner said, “Hey, Pidgen’s is open for the season! Who wants ice cream?”
We all did, and the little ice cream shop was just on the next corner. Tommy was sitting there, and hadn’t seen us, so I went up behind him and bopped the back of his head. He turned quickly and grinned when he saw me. “Paul! I knew I should wait here.”
He was at a little two-person bistro table barely big enough for his own dish of what looked like peach. The biggest tables there held four in a squeeze, so when I saw the others sitting down, Tom and I picked up the table he was at and brought it alongside, and I went back for the chairs while he said hi to Dana.
The place is strictly take-out, so no table service. Seeing that everyone else was having fun talking, I took orders and waited at the counter for a few at a time. When everything was delivered, I realized I never got anything for myself. When I turned around to go back, the line was long. I went back to sit, sans ice cream, with Tommy. He noticed, and pushed his dish to me, saying “I had enough.”
I pushed it back to him, saying, “I’m okay.”
He pushed it back under my face and said, “Eat it. That was four scoops, and way too much. I thought peach would taste better, anyhow.”
I picked up his spoon and took a little bite, and it was peachy delicious, so I dug in, taking the time after several spoonfuls to look at him and say, “This is good. Thanks.”
Tom got a conspiratorial look on his face and whispered, “Look what I found.” He held his hand low under the table, away from the others. It looked like a black cigarette lighter that he had there.
“Watch,” he said. He pointed the thing at me, and a little red light came on, and it was bright enough to make me squint.
“What?” I asked, and the little light started blinking on and off. It was seriously bright. “What is it?”
Tom put it back in his pocket and leaned close. “Tail light, man. I think real UFOs would have tail lights.” He leaned closer yet, and whispered, “The dollar store has these. A dollar, Paul. A dollar and we can put tail lights on our next UFO.
I tried to picture it, and he whispered again, “They have red, white and blue ones. This is it, Paul. This is really it.” He looked at my face and said, “I told you about the coal bricks, right?”
He had. Coal bricks were a source of heat in Asia: coal dust formed under pressure into shapes. This made use of the dust from coal mining, that had previously been wasted, and the bricks burned hotter and more predictably than solid coal. We had talked once about a coal-brick UFO design, but only that once. Now it was clear that Tom hadn’t lost the thought.
“The dollar store is the place,” he whispered while leaning in close. “We can get metal pails and some wire, then all we’ll need are old sheets.”
“Old sheets,” I repeated. “Where do we get old sheets?”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Linen closet? You have one, don’t you?”
I stared at Tom, and finally sorted out his words. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “I don’t know if we keep old sheets, though.”
He said, “Never mind, we have lots. Are you in?”
I gave Tom the incredulous look I felt. “Of course I’m in. When?”
Tom’s tongue licked over his lips while he thought about something. “What about Dana? Think he’ll do it?”
I glanced at Dana, who looked happier than he needed to be, talking to Lisa and Arizona. I looked back at Tom and said, “I’m not sure. Why? He’s only here this weekend.”
Tom stared at me. “Tonight’s the night. We can set it all up before, and be gone from the party just long enough to light a match. What do you think?”
I looked at Tommy and grinned. “Tail lights? I love it!” I noticed Tom still looking at me, and remembered my guest. “I’ll talk to Dana, okay? No promises.”
Tom said, “Think we should ask Shea?”
I shrugged and grinned, “Why not? They have the high ground, eh?”
Lisa was suddenly leaning close to me. “What are you whispering about?” she asked in her own whisper.
“Ribs,” I whispered in her ear. “Are you going tonight?”
She gave me a look, then asked in a normal tone, “Why is it a secret, then?”
I shrugged, then whispered in her ear, “I don’t know if everyone is invited,” which sounded good to me.
Lisa looked indignant, and asked Tom, “Tommy, have you invited Arizona to your barbecue tonight?”
Tom’s face reddened momentarily, then he smiled at Lisa, showing most of his teeth. “I was just about to.” He turned to Arizona and said, “Dad’s cooking ribs tonight. Want to join us? You can bring a friend.”
Arizona, having no clue otherwise, looked at Dana and asked, “Go with me, Dana?”
Dana nodded eagerly, then a tall, dark haired kid from a nearby table said, “I knew it!”
He was on his feet and standing at our table in two seconds, facing Dana. He pointed at him and said, “Well, well, well. Dana Morasutti!”