Mud Season

Chapter 12



Things were hectic from the moment I woke up.  I had to catch the school bus, and find all my things before I could even try.  Dana was facing a lazy morning and could have slept another hour or so, yet I had to wait for the bathroom.  I tried to put the time to good use, and gathered my books and papers into my backpack, but I was forgetting things right and left.


When Dana came back from the bathroom I tore right past him without even a greeting.  I rushed through my morning cleanup, and Dana was back in bed when I got back to the room.  I opened the closet and made minimal noise sliding hangers back and forth looking for a shirt and pants, and Dana complained.


“Jeez, can a guy sleep around here?  Why are you up so early, anyhow?”


I rolled my eyes.  “Why am I up?  Why were you up if you’re just going back to sleep?  I have to get to school, and I have to get dressed first.  I’ll be outta here in five minutes, comprende?”



I grinned, “That’s Spanish for shut up.”


Dana made a groan that sounded a bit like a deck of cards being shuffled in his throat, and I went back to the closet.  I was dressed in a few minutes, and Dana was snoring softly, so I shook him awake.  “Dana, I’m off to school.  Have a good trip home and we’ll talk tonight, okay?”


Dana opened one eye and managed a glare with it.  “Okay.  Better get going or you’ll be late.”


I stood and patted his shoulder, then left the room.  I no sooner closed the door than I had to turn around and go back in for my book bag and pen.


Ally was alone in the kitchen when I came down, and she greeted me with a smile.  She looked doubtfully at the clock and asked, “Do you have time for breakfast?”


I looked and I would have to run just to make the bus.  I kissed her cheek and said, “I’ll find something at school.  I gotta go.”


She held out a lunch bag for me, and said, “There’s a muffin on top,” as I rushed out the door.


The bus was just pulling to a stop, so I ran down to the road and got on right behind Shea.  When I got to the top of the steps, the kid in the front seat on the left stuck out his foot to trip Shea.  I kept Shea from falling by grabbing his book bag.  The kid who had tried to trip him was Gary Andrews, who also liked to tease people in the cafeteria, and intentionally hurt guys in the gym.


I stopped beside Andrews wishing I didn’t have a brown bag in my hand, and asked, “What’s the problem, Gary?  Got the hots for Shea or something?”


I heard the door close, and knew the driver would be on my case in two seconds, so all I said was, “I’ll talk to you later,” and hurried to the first empty seat I saw.  Once the bus started moving, I looked around for Lisa, and snuck across the aisle to sit with her.


I grinned as I slipped in beside her.  “Hey.”


She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and said, “Hey yourself.  What did you say to Gary?”


“I just said that I’d talk to him.  Why?”


Lisa shrugged, “He gave you the finger.  He’s always giving the finger.  Do you know him?”


“Only from class,” I said.  “You’ve lived here way longer than me.  What’s his problem?”


Lisa shrunk back in her seat a bit and said, “I don’t know.  Nobody says anything to me, but my mother doesn’t like that family, and she usually likes people.”


I shrunk back in my seat, and Lisa’s mouth was right there so I kissed her.  Gary Andrews was sucked out the window by the draft, and his bus seat became the last one in the top row at the movie theater.


I heard, “There will be no sex shows on this bus while I’m driving.  You there … stop that!”


I jumped, and then thought maybe I hadn’t heard those words, but rather dreamt them.  There were a lot of things I wanted to do with Lisa, but having sex, actually doing the real deed, was not up front, nor second, but way down the list … a vague thing even there.  It’s a me thing, not something Catholic.  I actually respect Lisa above any religious values, and now I have Dana, Elenora and Rhod to picture when I even think of having sex.  They’re all wonderful people, but what are the chances of another similar outcome?


When the bus stopped in front of the school, Lisa and I waited for the people ahead of us to get off, and then followed the line.  When I got to the ground, Gary Andrews was standing there.  He seemed a little nervous when he asked, “You wanted to talk to me?”


Gary is tall and kind of gangly, with long limbs and a long neck.  He was wearing jeans, a checked shirt with a t-shirt showing below it at the neck.   He has kind of oily looking skin, and his black hair was always as unkempt as mine.  I only knew him from a few classes, where he was never a contributor, but was rarely at a loss for an answer when called on.  He’d been in my English class the year before, and he always gave the best book reports, even though his hands shook all the while he had to stand in front of the class.


Anyhow, he’d just asked if I wanted to talk to him, and I said, “Sure, but not right now.”  That wasn’t entirely true, because I didn’t really want to talk to him, but I added, “How about right after lunch, out where the trucks come in?”


He nodded and said, “I’ll see you there.  What’s it about?”


I didn’t know what to say, and that made me smile, “I’ll think of something, okay?”


He eyed me, a smile playing at his lip, and he said, “Later then,” and walked off.


I watched him for a moment, and he had an odd walk, almost bowlegged but that wasn’t it.  He did kind of swing his legs to the side, though, and I could picture him in a cowboy hat and chaps, because he reminded me of movie cowboys.


When Lisa took my hand, all thoughts of Gary Andrews fled my mind, and we walked into the building together.  I left Lisa at her locker and hurried to my homeroom, resigned to another 5 weeks in school.  The morning went by easily enough.  I picked up assignments I’d missed, but I didn’t feel much behind.


I was certainly more popular than I’d been before the dance.  People I knew were friendlier than ever, and people I didn’t know, or barely knew, chatted me up at every opportunity.  Since we moved to Brattleboro I’d been another face in the crowd, but people knew me now, and it gave me what Ally always called the warm and fuzzies.  I liked it, and it carried through into the cafeteria at lunchtime.  I sat with my usual group, but noticed that there wasn’t an empty seat anywhere near us.


I was having fun, and loved when Tom and Shea introduced the blushing Fournier sisters when they sat down.  I was telling stories about Florida, the sun and the ocean, the big storm and learning to surf, when Lisa put her hand on my elbow and pointed to Gary Andrews, who was by the door to the parking area looking right at me.  I had forgotten him, and stood straight up and waved.  I went to pick up my tray and Lisa put her hand on it.  “Go.  I’ll take care of it.”


I looked at her, gave a weak smile and a nod, and then hurried over to where Gary was waiting.


He opened the door and stepped outside just when I got there, so I followed him the short distance to the loading dock area, apologizing for getting carried away at lunch.  I noticed that walk again, and the word lurching came to me.  It didn’t seem normal, somehow, but he turned and leaned against the brick wall, facing me.  “What’s up?”


I had to think, but started at the beginning.  “Why’d you try to trip Shea when we got on the bus?”


Gary looked confused and shrugged.  “Is that a big deal?  I been getting tripped since I started school.  I get tripped at home, everywhere I go.”


I said, “Well, do me a favor and leave Shea alone.  Why him, anyhow?  Just because he’s small?”


“Is there a better reason?  I get tripped because I can’t walk right.  I’d rather be small.”


Gary’s face took on a worried look when he said that, and he added, “I mean I don’t walk right.”


“I was thinking you walk like a cowboy.  Is that what you mean?”


Gary looked down and mumbled, “Yeah, I know how I walk.  What’s that got to do with anything?”


“Nothing,” I said, probably too quickly.  “Nothing at all.”  It was clearly a sore subject for Gary, so I changed the subject.  “Aren’t you on the basketball team?”


“JV team,” he said.  “How’d you know?”


“Tommy Timek is my neighbor.  I went to some games.”


Gary looked at me, an earnest expression on his face.  “I wish I had Tom for a neighbor.  He’s about the best guy I know.”


“Me, too,” I said.  “Listen, just tell me you’ll leave Shea alone and I won’t bug you anymore.”


He looked down, “I won’t, and you’re not bugging me.”  He looked back at me kind of hopefully, “Thanks for that dance last month.  It’s the first one I went to, and I never had so much fun before.”


I stood and said, “Don’t thank me.  Lots of people worked on that.”  I smiled, “It was fun, though, wasn’t it?”


We walked into the cafeteria just when the first warning bell sounded.  Gary bopped me on the shoulder and took off, and I hurried to my locker.


+ + + + + + + +


By the time the last bell rang, I had ended up with some catch-up work.  I’d been asked by Tom to stay and watch a baseball game with him, which I’d declined. Lisa had a detention, of all things, so I ended up riding the bus home with Shea Luellen.  Shea told me that Gary had apologized to him, and asked me what went on.


I said, “I just warned him that you’re a triple black belt in karate, kung fu, and ka ching.  That’s all.”


Shea snickered, “There’s such a thing as ka ching?”


I shrugged.  “I don’t know, and I doubt it, but I already said triple black belt so I needed a third thing.  If he asks, tell him it’s the Himalayan art of killing with your pinky fingers.”


Shea inspected his pinkies, and formed them into a teepee.  “Think I should let the nails get long?”


I laughed.  “Nah, just tell him I was making it up.  Then tell him the third thing is that you are really good with a stiletto.”


Shea looked at me, “What’s a stiletto?  Just stop it, okay.  I want to tell you what else he said.”


“Before or after he said he was sorry?”


“After,” Shea said.  “He said I’m lucky to have a friend like you.”


I let that sink in and asked, “Really?  Did you ask him what he meant?”


“He told me what he meant, so I didn’t have to ask.  He said you stuck up for me, and that’s what friends do.  Then he said nobody ever stuck up for him.”


I was about to say something when Shea added, “He seems like ... I don’t know, like sad.”


I looked at Shea, and right then he looked sad himself.  “I got that feeling too.  He says he gets picked on for the way he walks.”


Shea looked right at me.  “Why are we talking about Gary Andrews?  I saw guys telling him he had a … a … uh, that he made a mess in his pants, and that’s why he walks funny.  He didn’t look happy, but he was giving back pretty good.”


Shea’s question was a good one, and I had no idea why I suddenly thought I should take up for Gary, but that’s exactly what I thought. I put my hand on Shea’s wrist and said, “Listen, Shea.  I know you were really happy when Jamie stood up for you.  He didn’t know any more about you than we know about Gary, but he still took your side.  We could be like that for Gary, unless we find out he really is an asshole.”


I looked at Shea, and he was staring at me.  A little smile crossed his face and he said, “Okay, lets.  I like that idea.”  He looked at me a bit longer and added, “How?  I mean, what do we do?”


“I don’t know,” I grumbled.  “I guess we learn what we can about him, and then get to know the kid.  How hard can that be?”


“Where do we start?  How do we learn about him?”


I smiled, “Dan McNaughton and Jim.  They’ll know the basics, and probably what’s going on.”  Dan and Jim weren’t on the bus because Dan had a car his parents bought him for his graduation present.  “I’ll call them tonight.  Why don’t you come down after you eat so we can all talk?”


Shea agreed, and I looked at him sitting there.  He was once the subject of a lot of suspicion and rumors himself, yet freed of his family-imposed silence he made friends easily, and got along pretty well at school.   He was a year behind me, so not in any of my classes, but I know a lot of the soccer heads were hot to get him to apply for the team next year.  He was a real terror on the field when they played soccer in gym class.


I’d lived within about four hundred feet of him for two years, and thought his whole family was weird and unfriendly, but when I learned why it made sense.  Now, several months later, he was a friend of mine, and a good one at that.


When I got home, Ally looked me up and down and said flatly, “You’re outgrowing your clothes, which I suspect you know.  If your underwear is clean, get in the car and we’ll go find some new things.”


I knew that resistance was futile, and that she was right.  Other than the beach things I’d bought in Florida, my old clothes had been getting shorter and tighter on me for a few months.  The shirt I was wearing felt uncomfortable at the shoulders, and the buttons were straining a little.


I dropped my things in my room, went to the bathroom, and washed my hands and face.  My hair was messy, but pretty much sitting where it belonged, and I left it alone.


My mother didn’t want to go, so Ally took me to a new Kohl’s store in Brattleboro that was still having its grand opening sale.  I’d never heard of the chain before, but Ally assured me that I would find things I liked, and it was much closer than the J.C. Penny store in Keene.


It was nigh on summer, so I got one pair of Dockers long pants and six pairs of shorts, ten short-sleeved shirts, a lightweight sweatshirt and some tees.  At Ally’s insistence, I tried on some sport jackets, but she agreed with me that everything in stock was either for rappers or old men.  We tabled that until my trip to Boston.


My shoes still felt fine, but my sneaks were pretty ratty.  I found a pair of Reeboks that were light as a feather and felt really good, so I put those in the cart.  I chose some no-see socks to wear with them, and I picked up two six-packs of new underpants.


At home, I carried my new things up to my room and set them on the floor.  I had the makeup work, which I didn’t have to turn in right away, and some normal homework.  I hoped I could finish it all, but I’d do well to get my homework done that night.  Shea was coming over, and we had to call the McNaughtons.  It was already close to dinnertime, so I sat at my desk and got to work.


My cell phone vibrated after about thirty minutes, and I answered to find a very excited Dana.  “Paul!  I don’t believe this place.  It’s beautiful.  We’re already moved in and I have a big sucker of a bed, my own television, a stereo, a desktop computer and a phone in my room.  And I’m looking out right over town.  Did you see Mom’s new car?”


Dana had me grinning.  “She got a new car?  I didn’t even know.  What is it?”


“It’s a Subaru something, kinda like Ally’s car.  It was there in the driveway yesterday, only nobody said anything about it.”


I asked, “Is it kind-of light green?  I did see a car there yesterday, but never thought about it.”


“That’s the one!” he said.  “You should see my mother – she’s so excited about everything she don’t know what to touch first.”


“What about the rest of the building?  Is the Laundromat almost finished?”


“Oh yeah, it’s all finished.  I still have some machines to clean up, but everything’s there.  We’re opening up for a preview on Saturday and for business on Monday.  Mom starts interviewing people for jobs tomorrow.”


That surprised me.  “She already has people applying?”


“Oh yeah, lots.  People been dropping off their names all along, and Heinrich asked a few if they’re interested.  You’ll come up for Saturday, won’t you?”


“I’ll be there if I have to walk.  What about Monday?”


Dana groaned, “I wish.  I go back to school tomorrow, and no way can I skip more days.  I’ll work part time when they need me, maybe more in the summer.”  Then he added, “Oh, guess what else?”


When I didn’t say anything, he went on.  “I talked to Gretchen on the way up here.  They’re having fun, but get this: she misses me.”


I snickered, “I figured she would, just like you miss her.  I showed you how to use email and messenger.  You’ll have to set her up on your new desktop, too. Dad can help you with that.”


“He said he would.  There’s something else …”


Dana sounded suddenly troubled, so I asked, “What else?”


“I, um, I have a letter from the Killington Ski Club.  They want me to join their racing program.  All they do is slalom and giant, but that’s where I’m weakest.  It’s a stepping-stone, though.  It’s not exactly what I want, but I get to train with kids like me.”


“Why do you sound so hesitant?  Just go for it.”


“I don’t know.  I just think I ski better than my age, and I don’t wanna hold back.  It’s a way to get my name out there, though.  All the mountains have their own teams, and they race a lot.”


“You raced downhill before.  What was that about?”


“That was school races.  They’re better races, but they don’t count for USSA points.”


“USSA?  US Ski Association?”


Dana said, “Something like that. I mean, if I do it, I’ll be skiing against older guys.  The division is fifteen to eighteen.  I won a few giant slaloms, but my skis suck for slalom.”


I didn’t want to steer Dana one way or another, so I said, “Take your time.  They didn’t give you a deadline, did they?”


Dana sighed, “No. It’s just complicated and I have to think things out.  I have a chance for sponsors, maybe even special skis, and I won’t get that in a club.”


I smiled, “I think you know more than you’re telling me.”


“I probably do, but I’m just remembering things one at a time.  I don’t know how to put it together.”


I said, “Tell you what.  Put all that in a pile, go back to school, clean your machines, and I’ll see you Friday.  Your open house is on Saturday, and we can talk about skiing on Sunday.  We still have to figure where to go in the Andes.”


Dana asked, with a happier tone in his voice, “Don’t you have homework?  You’re getting so much like Dad it’s scary.”


I laughed, “Good night, Dana.”


He snickered, “Bye,” and he hung up.


I went back to my homework for a few minutes, and my mother called me down for dinner.  I looked, and I had less than ten minutes work left, so I ran downstairs and told her I had to finish, and ran back up and did just that.


When I came back down, there were only salad plates on the table, Mom and Ally’s empty, and mine piled high.  I sat and started gobbling at it, and Mom said, “Don’t eat so fast, Paul.  You’ll make yourself sick.  Finished with your homework?”


“Just today’s,” I said.  “I have some catch-up work, but there’s no hurry.”


I slowed down on the salad, which was very good once I paid attention to it, and when I pushed my plate away Mom and Ally came in with a plate of veal, a bowl of linguini, a bowl of red sauce, and another little bowl of grated cheese.


Mom announced, “Veal Parmesan.  Let me demonstrate.”


She put a big tong-load of pasta on her plate, put two big spoons of grated cheese on it, used the little tongs in the meat dish to pick up some pieces of veal, ladled sauce over that, and put more cheese on top. Everything was steaming hot, so the top cheese started melting right away, and my stomach did a hungry flip.


Ally went next, and then it was my turn.  Mom took some bread off a plate and handed it to me.  I took some and passed it to Ally, by which time the aroma had me almost dizzy.  I dug in and didn’t look up until it was half gone, when I reached for my water.


My chin was close to the table, and I took a quick glance at Mom and said, “Good,” and went back to it.


We all heard the back door open, and soon Shea showed up in the doorway to the dining room, followed right after by Tommy.


Shea said, “Oops!” and I was on my feet, napkin dabbing at my mouth.


“No-no, my fault.  I never even called Dan or Jim.”  I thought quickly, and tossed my cell phone to Shea.  He caught it and I said, “Call.  See if they can come over.  If they can’t we can use the speaker phone upstairs.  I’m almost done, promise.”


Shea seemed stunned, but Tommy grinned and backed out of the doorway, tugging Shea’s shoulder as he went.


I sat back down and started back in on my meal, but I could feel eyes on me.  I looked at Mom and Ally in turn and snapped, “What?”


Ally looked like she was holding back a laugh, but Mom said, “Aren’t you the bossy one?  You could have asked your friends to join us, at least for dessert, but no.  You don’t even have time for conversation with us.”


She was right, and I mumbled, “Sorry.  I … I just got behind on things today.”


My mother kind-of sniffed, “Well, it’s never right to use rudeness to cover your own lapses.”  She smiled, “If you’re already behind, how much behinder would it make you to be polite?  Finish your dinner, Paul, and then ask your friends to sit down with us for some lovely Italian cookies and lemon ice.”


I smiled, albeit sadly, nodded, and picked up my fork.  When I finished I joined Shea and Tom in the kitchen.  I said, “Sorry guys.  I didn’t mean to be so pushy.”  I knew Mom was right, but when Tom and Shea didn’t argue and just accepted my apology, I realized that I really had been in the wrong.


It didn’t matter, and Shea said, “They’ll be here any minute.  I didn’t even say what it’s about.”


“That means they want to see us?  How nice,” I said, and looked at Tom.  “How was the game?”


Tommy gave me a crooked smile?  “Game?  There was a three-inning game where their first pitcher struck out our whole side, and they got two runs off us. Then in the fourth, Cruiser Alby hit the first pitch between short and third, and those guys couldn’t field a basketball.  He made second on a weak single.  Pathetic.”


I asked, “So, who won?”


Tommy stared and said, “Wait.  Let me tell it.  Their pitcher fell apart after that, and they put in a guy who pitched changeups.  Changeups!  That’s all he pitched.  No fastball, no slider, no curves, just changeups.  I mean, they can be hard to hit, but not after two in a row.  Their third guy threw fast, but couldn’t find the plate.  He walked two runs in and had the bases loaded when Cruiser came up again.  They changed pitchers again, and the guy was good.  He had Cruiser at three and two, and Cruiser just barely connected with the next pitch.”  Tom grinned, “Easy, easy, easy double play, but not for those guys.  Two guys scored while they played catch, and we ended up nine-to-two.”


Tom wasn’t on the team, but he loved the game and he knew some of the guys on the team from way back in Little League.  When he grew, it was all up and no out, so basketball was the game he stayed with.  I didn’t play on any team.  It’s not that I couldn’t, but at Barent’s the sports were all intra-mural, and things like tennis, horseback riding, golf, and tiddlywinks.  I never learned the regular team sports, except a little during summer.


The reflected sunlight crossed the kitchen when Dan’s car pulled in.  I hadn’t seen it, so we went outside.  It looked good to me from the get-go, all shiny and black with lots of chrome.  Dan had the driver’s door open and was standing with his elbow on the hood looking as proud as if he’d just hatched the thing from an egg he laid himself. 


“What is it?” I asked.


Dan said, “It’s a Ford … a Ford Edge.”


I walked all around it.  It was another SUV, but I decided I at least liked the looks of it.  “Does it start?”  I asked.


Dan sputtered out a little laugh and said, “It started each and every time I asked it to, and I’ve had it for six days now.”  He pounded on the hood, which my father would never do, and said, “Built Ford tough!”


“Doodler!” I heard, and turned to see Jim coming from the bushes while he adjusted his fly.  “How was Florida?”


You pissing on our weeds?” I asked.  “Florida was great, and we stayed in a neat place.  We learned to surf, and Dana found a girlfriend.”


I turned back to Dan and nodded to his car, “Nice.  I like, especially since it starts.”  I looked inside the car, and Tommy was in the driver’s seat, making believe he was driving.  I said, “Let’s go inside.  Mom has dessert ready, and then we can catch up.”


I saw Jim’s eyes light up.  “Dessert?  What’re we waiting for?”


“You,” I said.  “Let’s go, but let me warn you that Mom’s on a polite kick tonight, so make sure I mind my manners.”


Tommy snickered, “Gentleman Paul?  I can’t wait to see.”


I led them into the house and called out, “Five of us, Ma.  We’ll be in the dining room.”


Tommy mumbled, “Strike one,” and I heard Ally stifling a laugh.


We sat around the table; a plateful of cookies that looked like waffles was in the middle.  My mother called from the kitchen, “Oh, Paul?  Son of mine?  Are you too behind to help an old woman carry these things in?”


I wheezed out an almost silent laugh and managed, “Of course not, mother dear.  How much help would you like?”


Her voice lost its sweetness when she said, “Just yours.  This shouldn’t take too many trips.”


I didn’t like the sound of that, so I hurried into the kitchen.  Mom was standing there looking at me, her arms crossed in front of her and her foot tapping.  “I didn’t hear you excuse yourself.  Honestly, Paul, did Florida cause you to forget every manner you ever learned?  If that’s the case, we’ll have to keep you out of the heat and away from the sea.”


Zinged twice in one night?  I swallowed her reproach saying “Sorry,” once again.  “What do I have to bring in?”


She handed me a silver tray, and took two round tubs of Italian ice from the freezer.  “This will do it for now.  That has to soften a little before you can serve it.”


I knew what was coming.  I’d bring that in, and come back for something else, and again for another thing.  I’d go back and forth at least five times to learn my lesson.  I didn’t mind.  When the guys left I’d get a great big hug from Mom and another from Ally … hers served up with a giggle that might upset my nervous system for days.


I brought in dishes, followed by spoons, and then napkins.  The last trip was for the ice cream scoop.  When that was on the silver platter with the ices, I sat down and said, loudly enough for the kitchen staff to hear, “Thomas, would you mind serving?  My wrists are sore.”


The guys busted up laughing, as did Ally, and I know I heard my mother trying not to.


The dessert was a hit.  The waffle cookies aren’t really crispy, but the very outside of them is, and they sparkle with little sugar crystals.  We had lemon ice and raspberry ice, and when that was scooped onto the cookies, the cookies softened just like a waffle.  The result was extra good, and probably good for us, too.  Well, maybe not, but we polished off all but one cookie, which Tommy stuck in his shirt pocket when nobody else claimed it.


I thought to ask if anyone wanted coffee, and asked loudly.  When they all said no I said, “Okay, let’s do something useful.  You all know Gary Andrews, right?”


Heads nodded, and I went on.  “Gary tripped Shea on the bus this morning.  I couldn’t say anything right then, so I said I’d see him later.  When I got off the bus, he was there like he wanted to talk to me, so I caught up with him after lunch and asked him why he tripped Shea.  He made it sound like he’s the one being picked on all the time.  I told him to lay off Shea, and he said okay, and then he thanked me for Jamie’s dance, like I was the only one.  He said he had the best time ever, and afterwards he went and apologized to Shea.”  I looked at Tommy and said, “He told me you are the best person he knows.”


I didn’t go on, but waited for someone to say something. 


Tommy was first, and he had a rare, sad expression on his face.  “Gary’s got shit since kindergarten.  I mean, I like him fine, but kids always made fun of his walk, even after teachers told us about it.”  He looked around, “It’s a medical thing, like a brain disorder.  Whatever part works his legs, it doesn’t work right.  It’s funny, because he runs okay, but he walks like Frankenstein or something.”


I asked, “Is there a cure?”


“I don’t know,” Tommy said.  “If there is, I doubt his family could afford it.”


“They’re poor?” I asked.


Tommy shrugged.  “They’re what they call land-poor around here.  They have a couple hundred acres, but it’s not good for growing anything.  They mostly raise bulls on it; they have a little sawmill, and the mother drives a delivery truck for the auto parts place.  They make things for the big flea market up in Newfane, candles and such, do some syruping, but I’d say they’re pretty poor.”


I snickered, “Sounds like they keep busy.”


Dan said, “A lot of the people in Vermont stay busy that way, Paul.  They make a little here, make a little there, but it doesn’t add up to much.  Gary’s still in school, at least.  His brother and sister both dropped out the first day they could.”


Jim asked, “What are you thinking, Doodler?”


I think I blushed a little, and mumbled, “I’m not sure.  He picked on Shea this morning and I talked to him.  He said he wouldn’t anymore, and then apologized to Shea.”  I looked around, “I’m thinking he might need some friends.”


Jim went, “Eww,” and thought for a moment before adding, “You’re probably right.  Should we find him some?”


Dan said, “You’re a regular laugh riot, Jim.  You know what Paul’s asking.”  He looked at me, “Count me in.”


Tom and Shea echoed Dan, and Jim looked around before saying, “Well all right,” drawing the words way out.  He smirked, “It took you long enough to make up your minds.  What should I call him?”


I laughed, “That’s for you to decide, as long as it’s not Legs or something.”


Jim looked hurt.  “Give me credit for some originality, won’t you?  How are we gonna do this?”


That was the question.  We started tossing out ideas, most of them lamer than the one before.  Shea said, “Why don’t we just talk with him, sit with him at lunch or something?  Is he in anybody’s class?”


Jim rolled his eyes, and said, “Troll, you’re making me re-think the noble name I laid on you.  Of course he’s in somebody’s class … not mine, but somebody’s.”


We all snickered at that.  Tom idly raised his hand, and when people kept talking he whistled.  When we looked at him he said, “He’s in English with me, Algebra Two, PE, and study hall.  I’m already his friend, so maybe I can get him involved somehow.  I have to think about it.”


Dan said, “Do that.  What about this medical condition?  What do you know about it?”


“Nothing, really,” Tom said.  “He told me what it was called once, but that was a long time ago.  I suppose I could ask again.”


The four of us were staring at him, and he said, “Alright, I’ll ask him what it’s called.  I’ll write it down this time.”


Things quieted down, and I had a minute to think.  I spoke to Tom, “See if you can find out if there’s a treatment.  If he doesn’t know, don’t push it.  We can find out when we know what it’s called.”


Jim looked at me with a rare, sober expression.  “You’re serious about this?”


I said, “You tell me.  Am I wasting my time?”


Jim said, “Gary isn’t the nicest person on Earth, you know.  He can be a real dickhead when he wants.”


“You don’t think he gets pushed into it?” Dan asked.  “Jesus, the kid’s been picked on since we were little.  Does it make him a dickhead because he’s big enough to fight back now?”


Jim faced Dan like he was ready to argue, but then lowered his gaze and mumbled, “I guess not.  Gary’s okay.”


Dan smiled, Tom smiled, Shea smiled, and I smiled.  Jim looked around hesitantly, and then shrugged in defeat.  “Okay, why not?  I don’t know what we can do, but I’m in.”


I didn’t know what to do, either, but figured it should start with Tommy.  He was already Gary’s friend in a way.  He at least knew the most about him.


I asked, “What do you think, Tom?  I don’t want him to think we’re ganging up on him.  How do we get started here?”


Tom shrugged, thought for a minute, and shrugged again.  “I don’t know.  Andrews doesn’t make friends too easy.  He hardly does anything with anybody either.”  Tom sat thinking, and Jim and Dan seemed to be too.


I didn’t know enough to think anything, nor did Shea.  Finally, Jim said, “What about Landry?  He lives out there, and I know they hang around sometimes.”


Tom looked a bit surprised, and pointed his finger toward Jim.  “That’s it.  Good thinking.  Roger’s a good guy, and maybe the closest thing Gary has to a friend.  He’s always trying to get Andrews to do things.”


I knew who Roger Landry was just about enough to say hello to him at school.  He wasn’t in any of my regular classes, but we shared a study hall.  When we happened to sit next to each other we’d joke around some, but that was my experience with him.  He was kind of a shorter, friendlier version of Gary Andrews.


I asked, “So, what do we do?”


Tom said, “Let me think on it.  I can talk to Roger, but I don’t want to go too far.  Maybe I can just ask why Gary never hangs around with the guys, and if maybe Roger could get him to do something.”


“Something like what?” Dan asked.


“Anything, I guess.  I know he likes to fish, and he plays basketball.”  He looked at me, then Shea, and said, “Maybe we can ask them to show us some fishing holes up that way.”


Shea asked, “What about basketball?  I don’t know anything about fishing.”


Tom shrugged, “Fine by me.  I have a hoop over the garage.  It’s not exactly regulation, but it’s easy for you little guys.”


I know I looked askance at Tom, Jim’s jaw dropped an inch, and Shea positively glared at him.  We said, almost in unison, “Little guys?”


I led the attack, and Tommy was on the floor in two seconds, his chair under the table, while the three of us attacked his ribs mercilessly.  We would have kept it up, except his long legs were kicking the underside of the table, and my mother yelled, “Enough!” from the doorway.  She looked at our faces, red from the exertion, the chair on the floor, and finally at Dan, who had stayed out of it.


To him she said, “Thank you William.  I’m happy to know that there is at least one gentleman left in this state.”


“It’s Dan, ma’am.”


“Of course it is, and I’ll leave you in charge to see that this room is put back in order.”


She stomped out, and we all managed to silence our laughter until Dan said, “You heard the lady.  Get off the floor and pick that chair up.”


We did, giggling like little kids all the while.  When things were straightened out and we’d quieted down, I asked Tom, “Can you set something up?”


Tom nodded.  “I can talk to Roger, and maybe ask them to get off the bus here to shoot hoops some day.”


I suddenly realized that Gary was on the morning bus every day, but rarely on the one after school.  “Where’s he usually go?  Gary, I mean.”


Tom shrugged, “I’m not sure.  He stays to watch games sometimes, and his mother picks him up.  Other days … I don’t know.”


Dan said, “See what you can do.  Try to give us some warning, okay?”  He looked at the time on his phone and said, “We should get going.  I still have homework.”


We walked Dan and Jim out to the car, and broke up as soon as they drove off.


When I went back in, I looked in the living room.  Mom and Ally were in there, Mom looking at a magazine while Ally tapped a laptop.  It was a cozy scene with Ally at one end of the sofa, and Mom stretched out from the other end, her bare feet on Ally’s legs.


I said, “The infantry has gone.  I’m going to my room.”


Ally gave me a quick smile and went back to her work.  Mom looked at me and said “Please don’t break anything.”


I said goodnight.  As soon as my door closed behind me, I had the phone in my hand and called Lisa.  We talked until she had to give up the phone, and I was tired anyhow.


+ + + + + + + +


The next morning at the bus stop, Tom said he’d talked to Roger Landry, and that Roger would talk to Gary Andrews about getting together after school for a little basketball.  When the bus came, it seemed like they had already talked.  They were near the front, and both greeted us when we got on: a first. We split up after that; I sat with Lisa while Tom and Shea sat beside their little French girls.  I said, “I guess a little love really is in the air,” when I first sat down.


“I told you,” Lisa said just before she kissed my cheek.


She did tell me, she did, she did.  That was almost a week before, and everything still looked hunky-dory


The day was just a normal school day.  The only unusual thing I saw was that Dan McNaughton sat with Gary and Roger at lunch, or maybe it was the other way around.


After the last bell, Jim caught up with me at my locker and said, “Gary and Roger are coming today.  They’ll get off the bus at Tom’s house.  Tom’s gonna ask you then if you want to shoot some baskets, but he’ll wait till Shea leaves.  Shea already knows, but he’ll come down a little later, like he’s just coming to see Tom for something.  Dan’s gonna drop me off after I go home and change.  He has to do something, but he’ll come back after.”


Tom and Shea were already on the bus when I got there with Lisa.  They were both holding hands with their French girls, and paid no attention when we walked by.  I didn’t see Gary or Roger, but I did see them approaching the bus after I sat down.  I talked to Lisa until the bus reached her road, and said I’d call her after dinner.  I had a little homework from that day, and I hoped to get started on the catch-up work.


Shea headed up the hill to his house as soon as he got off the bus, so he never saw that Gary and Roger got off at our stop.  I asked Gary why he was getting off there, and Tom said, “Oh, they’re coming over to my house for a little basketball.”


I said, “Sounds fun.  Can I come?”


Tommy rolled his eyes.  “Of course you can come.  I was just gonna ask you.”


I started to my house walking backwards and said, “Thanks.  I’ll see you in a few,” and turned around to go home.


Ally’s car wasn’t there, and nobody was home.  I went to my room and dropped my backpack on the floor, then changed into a pair of shorts, a plain blue t-shirt and my Converse high tops.  I clipped my phone on and then decided to leave it.  It vibrated in my hand, and it was Dana.


“Hey,” I said.  “I just got home.  How was your first day back?”


“Not bad.  I got bagged in English class.  The teacher made me stand up front and give a trip report.  I hate that, so I was embarrassed at first.  Then I figured it’s me with the tan so I talked the whole class.  I told them about the place we stayed, the places we ate, about Claire and the towels.  That got the boys worked up, so then I said how I met Rhod Daniels and spent a lot of time with him, and that got the girls excited.  I told them about the jellyfish and the Kromers and surfing.  I even talked about getting tutored so’s they wouldn’t get too jealous.”


I laughed.  “How did it go over?”


“Pretty good.  Everyone clapped, and the teacher said it was a good job.  It was more fun than parsing sentences.”


I chuckled, “Yeah, I guess it would be.  How personal did you get?”


Dana paused, “I didn’t, really.  I said my mom knew Rhod from where she grew up, and I didn’t say anything about Dad, or the security guys or anything like that.  I just told them things I did.”


“That was pretty smart, I think.  I’m supposed to go shoot hoops with Tommy and some guys from school.  Can I call you later?”


“Sure,” Dana said.  “You don’t have to call if you’re busy.  I just wanted to say hi.”


We said goodbye and hung up.  I left my cell on my desk, and was going out the back door when the house phone rang.  I answered, and it was security asking if I knew the guys with Tom.  I assured them I did, and that was that.


The people watching us in Brattleboro really were discreet, and I’d forgotten that they would probably call to check when someone new showed up.


When I got to Tom’s, Jim was already there and they were playing two-on-two.  I was the fifth player, so they decided to switch to HORSE, and Tom tossed the ball to me, telling me to start.


I’m not a good basketball player because I never learned how to really control the ball, but I do pretty well shooting baskets.  That’s what counts in HORSE, where the first player shoots for a basket from anywhere legal, and any shot he wants.  If the ball goes in, every other player has to make the same shot from the same position or they get a letter.  When someone misses enough to spell out HORSE, he’s out, and it goes on till only the winner is left.  I never actually won that often, but I’m rarely out very early either.


I made a simple jump shot from the right side, and it went in.  I took my bow, and then Jim and Roger both missed.  Gary made it, and Tommy missed, so Gary got to lead off the next shot.  He tried a lay-up from the left side and missed, so it was my turn to lead again.


I heard Tom say, “Hey, Shea.  What’s up?”


I turned to look, and had to turn away.  Shea, subtlety personified, was dressed in a Celtics replica uniform, Number 20 no less:  Ray Allen.


Shea started saying he just came to say hi, and I was trying to keep from choking to death, but I forced myself to stay alive so I could choke Shea to death first.


I heard Tom snicker and say, “Um, we’re just hanging here in the driveway.  What’s up with you?”


I think Shea had the message, because he said brightly, “Want to play a game?  You have a ball, a net, and six guys.  We can play three on a side.”


I turned around and saw everyone shrugging their shoulders and muttering things like “I guess.  Why not?”


I snatched the ball from Jim’s hands and said, “This is good.  What are the sides?”


Tom said quickly, “Me, Gary and Roger against you guys.”


I shook my head and said, “No, no, no, no, no.  You and Gary are professionals.  You can’t be on the same team.”


There was a murmur of agreement, and Tommy said, “Okay, you choose.”


I said, “Me, Tom and Shea against you guys.  Is that fair?”


On agreement I tossed the ball to Jim and said, “You start.”


Jim bounced the ball a couple of times, then moved out, and Shea was right in front of him.  Jim tossed the ball to Gary, who I tried to cover.  He was taller than me, and knew how to handle the ball pretty well, but Shea took it away from him and passed it to Tom, who ran it in and made a nice lay-up.


The game was on, and it was a pretty good match up.  Shea came up to about the top of my nose, to the bottom of Tom’s nose, and to Gary’s lower lip, but he was fast and seemed to be everywhere at once. He was easy to block because of his height.  He didn’t get a lot of good shots, either, so he only scored a couple of baskets, but it was pretty much his game all the same.  He kept getting the ball away from the other guys and feeding it to Tommy, and occasionally to me when Gary had Tom covered.  We played hard and fast, and Jim called for a break after about fifteen minutes.  We were all red-faced and sweaty, and Roger was really gasping for air.


We plopped down on the lawn, and Tom turned the garden hose on so we could have a drink.  We all took long drinks right from the hose, and then sat back down again.  Tom bopped the back of Shea’s head and asked, “Where’d you learn to play?”


“New Jersey,” Shea replied.  “We played all the time.”


I asked, “Who’s we?”


Shea stretched out on his back and looked at the sky.  “Just about everybody.  There was always a game, and you had to wait to get in it.  If you weren’t putting out, you got tossed out.”


“You didn’t get tossed?” Roger asked.


“Sure I did, lots of times.  Nobody starts out being good.  There was this kid, Ishmael.  He was about six foot tall, and he told me one day to use my size to my advantage, and showed me what he meant.  His dribble started up around my neck, and I learned to time it and run right under his hand to get the ball from him.  At first he was teaching me, but I learned to get it from him whenever I wanted.  And I learned to kind-of disappear on the court; get behind some big guy and wait for a pass or a break or whatever, and just run out and interrupt it.”


Listening to Shea, I realized that I’d seen him do the exact same things with us.


Just then we heard a single pair of hands clapping slowly, and turned to see Dan there, leaning against the front of his car, where he had apparently been for a while.  He was walking toward us with a smile on his face, and said, “I just watched you, Shea.”  He swept his hand toward Gary, Roger, and Jim.  “You had these guys just about hog-tied.  Why don’t you go out for the school team?”


Shea made a face, “I’m a Freshman.  Anyhow, I’d never make it.  I’m too small.”


Gary turned to him, a surprised look on his face, and said, “Are you kidding?  You show the coach what you got, you might end up captain.”


Shea seemed ready to protest when Tom said, “Listen to Gary.  You go to tryouts, and if you don’t make the team … well, you will make the team.  Ain’t no doubt.”


After resting for a few more minutes we got back into our game, only the other guys were so busy keeping their eyes on Shea that Tommy and I walked all over them.  We scored ten times straight before they realized what was happening, and by then it was too late.  They couldn’t catch up, and they wore themselves out trying.  We scored four more baskets to their three after that, when Gary just sat down on the driveway shaking his head. 


“It’s too hot,” he said, and we all agreed with him.


When we cooled off, Dan said, “I have to get going.  Anyone need a ride?”


Jim said, “I should go.  I’m supposed to cut the grass.  Might as well go when I’m already dirty.”


Roger and Gary looked at each other, and told Dan, “I guess we’ll stay for awhile.  See you tomorrow, okay?”


Jim stood, and I walked over to the car with Dan.  Before he got in he asked me, “You know what to do?”


“I don’t have a clue what to do, but I know what we want to know.  We’ll figure it out.”


He put a hand on my shoulder and gave me a solemn look.  Then he grinned and said, “Yeah, I know you will.  You usually do.  Be good.”


He hopped in the car and they drove off while I walked back to the others.  My legs were already feeling sore from just that bit of basketball, and they usually did after I played.  I was sweating all over, too, and could feel drops running down my sides under the tee shirt.


The other guys were still sitting, but I stayed on my feet and asked, “Now what?  You want to play more?  I sure don’t.”


“Wuss,” Tom said.


“Wuss yourself, Timek.  I was about to ask if anyone wants to help me raid our kitchen.  Mom’s home and … “


Tommy was standing in front of me in an instant.  “Great idea, Paul.  When did you get so smart?”  He looked at the guys still sitting and said, “Paul’s kitchen isn’t like yours or mine.  It’s loaded!”  He turned back to me and asked earnestly, “Think there’s any Cheez Whiz?”


We all trotted down to my back door.  Ally’s car was still gone, so we were free to wage an open attack on the goodies.  The refrigerator yielded some already sliced pepperoni and salami, a nice hunk of good-looking cheddar, a bowl of salsa and an unopened tub of cottage cheese with chives.  We found various crackers in a cabinet drawer, a bag of tortilla chips on the counter, and a new jar of Cheez Whiz in a cupboard.


I put out some plates and bowls and a cutting board, plus a few utensils, and we dug in.  After a few minutes Roger asked, “Do you have something to drink”


“Water,” I said.


Tom added, “Paul doesn’t do soda.”


I said, “Wait a minute,” and went to the back room.  Ally was there, and usually kept some diet soda around.  I found two packages, and held a can from each up.  “Diet Pepsi and diet Seven-Up, if you don’t mind diet.”


Tom and Roger took Pepsi.  I poured the drinks on ice, and got glasses of cold water for the rest of us, and dove back into the snacks, not worried that it wouldn’t be long before dinner.


Tommy loves Cheez Whiz on anything, and he’d probably eat it with a spoon if it came to that.  It was tortilla chips that day, and when he couldn’t reach the goo in the jar with a chip he got a knife from the drawer.  The other guys were nibbling at everything, while I enjoyed the cottage cheese on these little rye crackers that Ally makes.


When we slowed down, Gary was looking around and said, “This is a nice house.  It’s way different than it looks from outside.”


I said, “Thanks, we like it.”


He said, “Our house is old, too, but it’s old-old, kind-of falling down.  Somebody took good care of this place for sure.”


“It’s been restored,” I said.  “More than once I think.  The last time was about a year before we came here.”


Gary asked, “Mind if I look around?”


“It’s just bedrooms upstairs.  Anything nice is down here.”  I pointed to the door that led to the mudroom by the side door.  “Go straight and you’ll get to the dining room, and keep turning left till you’re back here.”


He said, “Thanks,” and took off with his odd, lurching walk.


Tom said, “Paul, why don’t you show him around?  You know what I mean?”


I can be dense.  “Oh, yeah.  Hey, Gary!  Wait up and I’ll show you around.”


I caught Gary at the door to the dining room, and he was looking at the inside.  He walked to the wall with the huge multi-paned window and looked outside. "Oh man," he said, "This is beautiful."  He turned around and looked at the furniture and fixtures and asked, "What?  Are you rich or something?  This is fantastic."


I shrugged, and led him into the living room, which is also nice but a lot less formal.  To prove that, an open newspaper was dangling from the coffee table, with two coffee cups near it, along with a small plate full of crumbs.  I picked the dish up and said, “This is how we lure mice and flies inside.  It’s pretty effective, and you haven’t lived till you find a family of baby mice in your Wheaties box.”


Gary laughed and said, “You’re funny.  Did that really happen?”


“Not yet, but I can’t wait for the day.”  I looked at Gary, who was still snickering, and asked, “Can you tell me something?”


He was suddenly serious, even wary.  “What?”


I said, “Don’t answer if you don’t want to, but why is it you can run like anyone else playing basketball, and then have trouble walking?”


Gary looked at me for the longest time, until I thought he wouldn’t respond at all.  His eyes had become sad, and he finally asked, “Can we go somewhere private?”


“Sure,” I said.  “Dad’s office is upstairs; we can talk there.”


I showed Gary the stairs, and followed him up.  He seemed to climb stairs normally, too.  As soon as we reached the landing his legs started swinging to the sides.  When we got to the office, we went in and turned the two chairs that faced the desk toward each other.  When we sat down, Gary looked like a trapped animal, and I felt bad for him.  “Look, Gary.  You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.  I know it’s not my business.”


He stared at me some more, sighed and said, “It’s okay.  I’m just tired of people calling me a retard when that’s not the case.”


I said, “I don’t think you’re a retard,” and tried a smile that didn’t want to work right then.


“I believe you, but the second I tell anyone I have a problem in my brain, then I’m a retard.”  His look toughened up a bit.  “You think I like how I am?  I mean, how could you think that?”


I spoke very quietly, “I’m not the enemy, Gary.  I want to be your friend.”


He slumped a little in his chair and smiled kind of sadly.  “I know.  I don’t know why, but I do believe you.  Not every brain disorder is a mental problem, you know, and mine’s not.  It’s not common, either, but it has a name, so I’m not the only one.”


“What is it?” I asked.


“It’s called cerebellar ataxia, and there’s nothing to be done about it.  With me, it’s just my hips, so it could be a lot worse.”


“No cure?”


Gary looked really forlorn when he said, “Nope.  They said therapy might help, but that’s expensive.  There’s some drug too, but it costs like a house payment.”  He looked away from me when he said, “There ain’t no way.”


He faced me again, shrugged, and almost smiled.  “I’m used to it.  It’s not gonna kill me or anything; it’s not like that.  I’m big enough now that nobody picks on me a second time.” 


I asked, really stupidly now that I think of it, “Don’t you have medical insurance?”


Gary hung his head and said, “I know we could, but my old man won’t take any kind of welfare.”  He dropped his elbows to his knees and put his chin on his hands. “He says we might be poor, but we raise our own food, keep ourselves clean, and don’t ask nobody for handouts.”  He lifted his head and smiled weakly, “Heard that before?  That’s most of this state talking.”


I had heard it before.  Vermont is a liberal state in a lot of ways, and is often first in environmental protection and civil rights, but the old-liners vote those things for the next generation, not themselves.


I thought I’d pressed Gary enough, and changed the subject.  “So!”  What’s in you’re future?  NBA?”


Gary laughed, “I kinda doubt it.”


“What then,” I asked.  “What do you think about?”


Gary asked, “Seriously?” and I nodded.  “I don’t know.  It changes.  One day I think I’d like to build things, like … I don’t know, houses, maybe bridges, just something.  Other times I think …” he looked at me, “You won’t tell anyone?”


I assured him I wouldn’t and he grimaced.  “I might want to help people like me.  I mean people that their bodies don’t work right because there’s something wrong in their heads.”  He smiled at me, “There are lots of brain problems that aren’t mental. I know because I have one.  It just makes me walk weird.  I’m as smart as most people.”


I smiled, “Yeah, you are.  So what do you think?  Builder or … what would you call it, therapist?”


Gary frowned, “Doesn’t matter much what I call it.  It won’t happen.”


I got to my feet and asked, “Why not?”


Gary almost spat the words.  “There’s no money, didn’t I tell you that?”


I backed off and said, “Not that clearly.”


I really wanted to tell him that there was … would be, the money by the time he needed it.  Instead, I touched his elbow and said, “Things will change.  You’ll see.”


We went back downstairs and my mother and Ally were in the living room, each with a glass of wine.  I introduced Gary quickly, and he said he had to leave.


“Got a ride?” I asked.


“No, we can walk.  It’s just a few miles up the road.”


“What road?” Ally asked.


“It’s right up your street, ma’am.”


Ally was in front of Gary in a second.  “You call me ma’am again and you’ll sing soprano until you’re ninety!  You are not walking miles up this road in the dark.  I’ll give you a ride.”


Gary was taller than Ally, but I’d guess she outweighed him by twenty percent, and she had her presence.  He cowered, thought, and said meekly, “Well, that would be nice.”


Mom said, “I’ll start dinner,” looked at Tom and Shea and asked, “Are you staying to eat?”


They both shook their heads no, but wanted to ride with us to take Gary and Roger home.  Gary and Roger had left their book bags at Tom’s place, and ran over there to get them, and we all piled into Ally’s car, with Gary in front to give directions.  It wasn’t anywhere close to being dark yet, but Gary didn’t say anything about that.  Roger’s house came up first, and it was an old place close to the road.  After he left, we went straight until Gary said to slow down, and his road was on the left, very hard to see.  It was paved for about forty feet, and then became a gravel road that ended at his home.  It was hard to see much from the back seat, but his house was down a very long driveway.  It looked nice enough from that distance: just a typical old Vermont farmhouse.  Gary said to let him out at the end because the driveway was rough from the spring rains and needed to be graded.


When he opened the door to get out, he said, “Thanks for the ride.”


I opened the back door so I could move up front, and he looked in and said, “This was fun, guys.  Thanks.”


Tom and Shea both agreed, and when I stepped out of the car I said, “Thanks for coming.  It was fun for me, too.”


Gary smiled and looked like he might respond, but held his hand up for a high-five, which I gave him.  He said, “See you tomorrow,” and started down the driveway.


When we got back to our house, Shea and Tom were both late for dinner, and they bolted for home right from the car.  I walked in with Ally and we went into the kitchen, but Mom shooed us out saying she needed room.


We sat down in the living room and Ally asked, “New friends?  Why do you all look like you’ve been sweating?”


“Roger and Gary are kids from school that I never really knew.”  Right then I got a whiff of the scent from my armpit and said, “I need a shower.  I’ll do it fast, honest.  I’ll be right back.”


I wasn’t copping out on Ally, because I really did stink.


When I came back down I felt better, and definitely smelled better.  Whatever Mom was making drew me to the kitchen.  Mom was at the stove and Ally was fixing a salad.  I said, “Smells good.  What is it?”


“Chicken Piccata, sort of.  There are no capers, so let’s call it chicken Francaise.  Set the table, will you?  It’s almost ready.”


We sat down to eat a few minutes later, me with a big glass of water, Mom and Ally with both water and wine.  There was some of Ally’s bread reheated from the oven, so I had a bit of that first, then some of the Caesar salad she’d just put together.  “I almost spit it out, but managed to get it down, and took a big glug of water.  “Oish!  Garlic!”  I proclaimed.


Mom reminded me, “Garlic is health food, Paul.  You know that.”


I had tears in my eyes, because that particular healthy garlic had gone straight through my brain to the top of my skull like fresh horseradish or too-cold ice cream.  I finally squeaked out, “Where’d you find that?”


Ally cooed, “Isn’t it wonderful?  One of our freelancers came back from Grenada with a suitcase full of it.”


I muttered, “Where was Homeland Security?” and picked around the salad, trying to avoid more healthy garlic.  I like garlic, I do, but this stuff was just too much, and I have to go to school with almost a thousand other kids.


When we got into the chicken, it was delicious.  Mom and Ally were on their second glasses of wine, and the talk was coming freely. 


Ally asked, me, “Paul, did that boy Gary get hurt here today?”


I said, “No.  Why?”


“He was limping.”


I said, “That’s not a limp, at least not one from getting hurt.  He has a condition …” I had to think to remember it.  “Cerebellar ataxia!  It makes him walk like that.”


I looked at my plate, which was still half full with yummy food and said, “Finish up.  I’ll tell you.”


Fifteen minutes later, the table cleared, my mother prodded me to finish the story.


“I never really knew Gary.  He was in a few classes with me last year, but he’s pretty quiet.  He plays basketball on the team with Tommy, so I saw him play a few times last winter.  Then the other day he was messing with Shea and I called him on it.”  I looked to see if Mom and Ally were following me, and they were.


“Anyhow, Gary’s big to be picked on now, but he’s had that all his life, because of how he walks, and people call him a retard and everything.  He’s not … he’s really not.  It’s just his walk, because he can run normal, and climb stairs normal, but when he hits flat his legs swing like you saw.”


Ally seemed pensive.  “I’ve heard about ataxia.  It’s not a curable condition.”  She fixed her gaze on me and asked, “Where are you going with this, Paul?  What are you thinking?”


I shrugged, “Nothing, really.  I mean, I’d like to help him.  He says there’s no cure, but therapy and some drug might help.  They don’t have medical insurance, though, and I guess there’s not much money.”


Mom started to ask, “Won’t the state …” and I interrupted her.


“He says his father won’t take welfare.”


Ally mumbled, “Another man of the Earth, huh?”  She looked at me like she was thinking of what to say.  “Normally I’d say that’s an admirable trait, but this is his son’s health.  It’s misplaced pride at best, but downright stupid if you want my opinion.  The boy needs help and help is available.  I think it’s unconscionable.”  She looked at my mother, “Would it be wise for me to call whatever they call child services in this state?”


That’s not what I expected from Ally, and not at all what I thought she’d say.  I said, “Whoa!  I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.  Gary’s been going to school here all his life.  If anyone thought he was being abused they’d have called by now.”


My mother said gently, “Paul, you don’t know that someone hasn’t already reported this.  It wouldn’t be made public.  And Al, I don’t know if it even is abuse to not pay for something that might work or might not.  Experimenting on a live person could be abusive in itself, don’t you think?”


Ally sighed and said, “You’re both right.”  She turned to me and said, “Tell you what; tomorrow I’ll make some calls to see if we can find a specialist in ataxia.  Then we can learn what’s going on at present, and if there are any likely cures on the horizon, as well as what treatments show promise, if such things exist.”


I smiled.  Ally to the rescue once again.  I said, “Thanks.  That is just perfect.”


We talked some more and then I went up to my room to do my homework.  I called Lisa first, and she was doing her own homework, so it was a short call.  I thought about calling Dana, but called Tommy instead.


His first question was “What did you find out?”


“Mostly what you said. Gary has that ataxia, and it’s like a problem in his head.  Therapy might help him, and there’s some drug, but they don’t have insurance and his dad’s too proud to ask for help.”


“Paul, that’s not mostly what I said, it’s exactly what I said  I just didn’t remember the word.  So nothing can fix it?”


“Ally is going to try to find an expert tomorrow.  She publishes a health magazine, remember, so she’ll find someone.  She’ll learn if anyone is working on treatments, or if what’s out there already is worth anything.”


Tom asked, “Then what?”


“I don’t know what,” I admitted.  “We’ll have to think on that.  I have homework to do, so can you call Jim and Shea to catch them up?”


Tom said he would, and we rang off.  I picked my books up from the floor, turned my computer on, and got to work.  I finished that day’s assignments and looked at the clock.  It was just after nine, so I decided to get started on the make-up work.  The biggest piece of that was a five-hundred word essay, unresearched, on the topic of my choice.


I hate that, and sat for ten minutes before I remembered my first surfing lesson from Denny.  It was storming outside at the time, and that lesson had turned into a classroom.  Denny was an entertaining teacher, though, and I remembered enough for the essay.  I thought I knocked it out pretty quickly, but it was nearly eleven when I finished.


I put my schoolwork together for the next day and got ready for bed.


I shut the light off and pulled up the comforter.  Then I thought about Gary Andrews, which made me think about how I perceived people, or more accurately, how I didn’t look very closely at them in the first place.  Gary has a problem in his head, and that problem causes his hips to malfunction.  That malfunction gives him a goofy walk and, facing myself with it, that walk negated his great book reports the year before.


I should have told him he did a good job or something, and I would have if it was anyone else.  The school had prepared us for Jeff Patenero, a boy with dwarfism, and he was not only never picked on, he was pretty popular.


Tom said the school did tell people about Gary Andrews, but back in grade school.  He’d been teased and pushed around until he was big enough to stop that on his own, and I could see that his past still hurt him.


I was probably part of that hurt, because I never paid attention to who was teasing who. 


Shame on me.