It was Saturday and mom drove me over to Molly’s house, but this time she didn’t “drop me off” but stayed too, to talk to Molly’s mom. Mom told other grownups that Molly’s mom was her “good friend”. I wondered if she was mom’s best friend too, since mom talked to her more than any of the other grownup women she knew, though not as much as when she and Molly lived across the street.
School was finally over and it was “summer break”, that’s what my teacher called it. Mom called it “summer vacation”. Whatever it was, I was really happy that I didn’t have to go to school, at least for a while, until September, which mom said was “two and a half months from now”. She said you could write “two and a half” in two different ways, as a fraction or as a “decimal”. I knew the fraction way. She showed me the decimal way, where you put the “2” and then a period and then a “5” after the period. She said the “5” after the period was “five tenths”, which she said was the same fraction as one half.
I liked SOME things about second grade. I liked that my teacher said I was a “very good student”, and that all my friends were good students too. That made us feel extra good together. If my school friends and I had to be in school with her so much, at least she thought we were really good, because I didn’t like any grownups thinking I was bad, specially ones that were in charge of me. I really liked reading books and how to say all the words I read the correct way. My friends would say the “right” way, but I didn’t like that because I was left-handed. Most of all I liked being with all my school friends.
But I DIDN’T like all the spelling and the “practice” stuff, like penmanship and that strange “cursive” writing. I know a lot of grownups wrote cursive, mom and dad did too sometimes, but that didn’t mean kids had to do it too. Grownups did a lot of strange and stupid stuff. Kids were going to do everything different and better. And the worst thing was that at school, grownups were in charge of us all the time, which kept making me worried that I might forget that my teacher was always watching, and I might do something wrong to make her think I was bad.
Recess was my favorite part of school, because my friends and I could talk about whatever we wanted to, and we didn’t have to be quiet. But I knew the teacher was still kind of watching us, even though the playground was a lot bigger than our classroom, so I was still at least kind of worried she might think I was bad.
I liked figuring out new things about numbers, like adding and subtracting big numbers. But after I figured it out, the teacher made us do too much practicing, too many of those “problems”. It seemed like every day we had to do problems. It was really boring, and we tried to make it more fun by making a game of it to see who could get them all done first. The teacher liked our game, but we only played it so we wouldn’t get “bored to death”. That’s what mom sometimes said about all the “chores” she had to do at home.
Molly and I had always been best friends. But now that she didn’t live across the street there were other friends, my school friends, that I saw more than Molly, because I saw them every day at school. Even during the summer now, I would still probably see Gabe or Herbie at the park, and maybe Jake sometimes if mom and his mom figured out how to have one of us go to the other’s house. Maybe I could even figure out how to ride my bike to Jake’s house. Herbie could ride his bike to mine, but he didn’t live quite as far as Jake did. I don’t know about Amanda, because she was a girl, and she said she didn’t “play with boys”, even though she always seemed to be with us boys at recess. She said she might invite us to her birthday party, which was in the summer before school started again.
But Molly and I were different. She and I always tried to know what the other one was thinking. We had tried to be the same, even though she was a girl and I was a boy. We even got naked together that one time. I’d never done that with any of my other friends, but it was really fun to do it with her. The “private parts” of her body were different from mine, but that didn’t seem like it made her very different. Our moms and dads probably wouldn’t have liked that we did that, but they didn’t know and we never told them or anyone else. Well I did tell those two kids in the park that one day kind of by accident, but they didn’t know me or know that it was Molly who I got naked with. I liked that it made them think I wasn’t such a little kid, even though they said I was “too young” to do that.
Even though mom and dad and other grownups said I would be a grownup too someday, I didn’t think so. But I did want to be an older kid like Ricky, saying funny stuff and never worried about grownups. Or even a really older kid like Margie, knowing all about music and getting to be a babysitter for little kids and get money. I wondered if Margie had gotten naked with boys, though I never asked her because she might think I was bad.
So Molly and her mom made lunch for us. Molly made baloney and cheese sandwiches with mustard on them for me and her. Molly’s mom had “fried clams”, plus “cocktail sauce” and “horseradish sauce” to “dip” them in, that she got from that eating place that “Howard Johnson” guy had. She gave one clam to Molly and one to me to “taste”, but they tasted REALLY BAD, so she said we could spit them out in the garbage bin if we didn’t like them.
Molly’s new “step dad”, who lived in the house with them and “got married” to her mom, wasn’t there because Molly’s mom said he was “doing research”. Molly’s mom called him “Larry”, which I think was a nickname and his real name was “Lawrence”. I guess a “step dad” was like a pretend dad when your real dad wasn’t around. Molly still really liked her real dad, but she also liked her “step dad”, though maybe not as much as her real dad. I liked him too, because he was always doing neat stuff, like making those “models” from those boxes you could buy at toy stores. He made ships and planes and even these crazy sort of people like from cartoons called “weird ohs”. He put all the pieces together with this glue stuff and then he painted it colors with these tiny brushes and bottles of paint, not like the bigger brushes and “tubes” of paint that mom used for her paintings, and not like the big jars of paint they let us use in “art class” in school.
I was figuring out that mom REALLY LIKED fried clams. She said she “loved” them. I guess if you really liked something, you could say you “loved” it and people would figure out you just really really liked it. If you said you “loved” a PERSON, then that meant you wanted to get kissyface with them, but you could say you loved something else, like something you really liked eating, and that was okay. That made me wonder, since Molly and I really liked each other, and she was a girl and I was a boy, what it would be like to get kissyface with her. If Molly wanted to try it, I think I might want to too. I even wondered about that “pistol in the holster” Roy Rogers and Dale Evans joke, what it would be like to do that with her. Would I even do that if she wanted to? Maybe not, but it was fun to think about it and pretend it in my mind.
“Jane”, Molly’s mom said, holding a fried clam in her hand with white stuff on it, “Do you read the New Yorker?” Then she put it in her mouth and started eating it.
“No Joan”, mom said, “We get the Ann Arbor News, Time Magazine, the Sunday New York Times, and whatever I can pick up from the TV nightly news.” She put one of those brown clam things in the red stuff and then ate it.
Molly’s mom made a funny hissing noise like she didn’t like that, and said, “Ach… the ‘Boob Tube’, just pandering to the lowest common denominator to sell soap. And Time has so-so journalism, with a heavy Republican bias.”
Mom nodded and grinned and her eyes flashed. “THAT’S why I read Time Joan, so I can see what the other side is thinking. Know your adversaries!”
Molly’s mom laughed and shook her head. “That’s where you’re the politician and I’m not. Anyway… the New Yorker. They published Rachel Carson’s piece about how we humans are negatively affecting our natural world. How we’re poisoning the planet our kids are going to inherit with these agricultural chemicals like DDT.” She held her hands out towards Molly and me.
Molly wrinkled her nose and her eyes got fierce. “Mom”, she said, “What’s DDT?”
“It’s an insecticide dear”, her mom said, “They spray it on crops to kill the insects that eat the plants.”
Still looking fierce, Molly asked, “What are ‘crops’?”
“Crops are what farmers grow in their fields”, her mom said, “Fruits, vegetables, wheat and corn, and so on. Food we buy at the grocery store. We’re all slowly being poisoned, not to mention all the birds that eat the insects that ate the crops.” Then looking at mom she said, “It’s rampant capitalism Jane, right out of Time magazine!”
Mom pushed her lips together, shook her head and said, “That troubles me Joan, that I might be poisoning my kids when I buy food from the grocery store.” She looked at Molly and me kind of worried and said, “Well you two, what are we going to do about that?” Both mom and Molly’s mom ate more clams while they looked at us.
Molly just looked down thinking, but I figured I wanted to say something. “We need to build spaceships and go to another planet that’s better”, I said. Molly’s mom laughed.
Mom looked at me, made a kind of fierce smile and shook her head. Then I could tell she thought of something different.
“So Eric FINALLY got it!” mom said, making another big smile, “I took Coop to the graduation ceremony. I can’t believe he is finally done with that damn PhD!”
“Oh my lord Jane”, Molly’s mom said. She breathed in air and breathed it out loud, “This is so exciting. Eric finally jumped through that last hoop!”
Mom closed her eyes and said, “It’s been three long difficult years.” She put her hands on the top part of her face, “If I’d known it would take this long…” She stopped talking and was thinking. “I’m not sure what I would have done”, she said.
“Well dammit Jane”, Molly’s mom said, “He did it. It’s his dream. Yours too. It was my dream once.” Her eyes looked up at the sky and she shook her head. “He did it. YOU did it. He’s already teaching classes at Eastern, right? Surely they’ll offer him a full professorship and not just a class here and there.”
“I should hope so”, Mom said, shaking her head, “No more cleaning toilets and odd jobs at the frat house.”
“Oh, that reminds me”, she said, “We saw Coop’s painting at the children’s art exhibit at Rackham. I was so impressed, the kid is a natural artist. Puts me to shame, two years of art school and all.” She looked at me and did her biggest smile, like it was really good that I did that. I liked doing things that grownups thought were really good so they wouldn’t worry about me and let me do what I wanted.
Molly’s mom looked at me and said, “So congratulations young man on your painting in the exhibit. Molly and I went to see your rocket taking off and both thought it was really something.” Molly nodded her head really fast and made her eyebrows go up to let me know she really thought so too.
“I liked all the smoke”, she said, “Like it was really happening.”
“So yes, the budding artist”, Molly’s mom said, “Like his mom.” Mom did her biggest smile AGAIN and nodded. She really liked it when other grownups thought I was good. And she would always tell grownups about how good I was, in case they didn’t know already. I knew I wasn’t always good, but mom and dad should only know about the good parts.
“People seem to be longing to go out into space”, Molly’s mom said, “John Glenn orbiting the Earth, and now another astronaut… what’s his name?.”
“Scott Carpenter”, Molly said, “Ricky told me.”
Molly’s mom laughed through her nose and said, “Look at them, Jane, they know more about it than we do!” She looked at Molly and me. “I just hope you two and your comrades spend some time getting things right here on Earth before you go rocketing off to live on some other planet.”
Molly nodded. I nodded too. I wondered what it would be like to live on the Moon or Mars. Maybe just older kids with no grownups, that would be neat. I’d have to pretend that with my friends.
“And as to getting things right here on Earth”, Molly’s mom said, “Jane, I’m just very excited about the Port Huron Statement, have you read anything about it.”
“I may have heard something, but I know very little”, mom said.
“Well it’s a manifesto for a new progressive movement in this country, written by Tom Hayden, centered around his new student-led organization, the ‘Students for Democratic Society’. He drafted it when he was incarcerated in a Georgia jail helping organize there for civil rights. You know, the ‘Freedom Riders’. It was fleshed out at a gathering of other student activists at Walter Reuther’s UAW retreat in Port Huron.”
“Tom Hayden”, mom said, thinking, “He’s the editor of the Michigan Daily. Eric knows him. Says he’s one of the most brilliant young men he’s ever met, but a bit starry eyed and full of himself.”
“Well”, said Molly’s mom, that word that grownups like to use when they wanted you to think they knew all the right things and you didn’t, “I would at least second the first part of Eric’s take.”
“It’s a comprehensive critique of the political and social system of the United States for failing to achieve international peace and economic justice”, she said. “Social systems. Sociology. That’s your academic bailiwick, right?” Mom nodded.
“Bailiwick?” Molly asked, giving her mom a strange look. I had never heard that word either. That “academic” word I heard mom and dad and their friends say a lot. It was all about that stuff you did in college.
“Bailiwick… let’s see”, said Molly’s mom, tapping her finger on her chin and looking up at the sky. “How can I explain it?” She kept tapping her chin, but then raised her finger in the air. “It’s an area of knowledge that you’ve studied and know a lot about. Like Coop’s dad knows English literature. Like you and Coop know your dinosaurs!” She smiled like she said something really good.
“But back to Hayden’s manifesto”, she said, pointing her finger at mom.
I had never heard that “manifesto” word before. It sounded like some kind of monster on that scary “Twilight Zone” show on TV. I looked at Molly and I could tell she didn’t know it either, and I knew she was going to ask.
“Manifesto?” It sounded funny when Molly said it because her mouth was full of baloney and cheese sandwich.
“Don’t try to speak with food in your mouth dear”, Molly’s mom said. Then she held her finger against her chin while she looked up. “Let’s see”, she said thinking.
It was mom who said the answer. “It’s a list you write down and then tell it to everybody else of all the things you think need to happen to change the world and make it better”, she said. Molly and I nodded as we both chewed a bite of our sandwiches. That made sense to me. I wanted to make one of those. I’d get all my friends to put their stuff in too.
“Ooo Jane”, Molly’s mom said, “You’re so good with words. When are we going to get you to run for office? Politics shouldn’t be just a man’s game.” Mom laughed through her nose. I knew “politics” was that voting stuff, and I wondered if you could really vote for women too, or if mom and Molly’s mom just wished you could.
“Let Eric get a real job with a real paycheck first so we can pay our bills. Then Joan, maybe I’ll think about it.” Mom did one of her biggest smiles, like she liked that Molly’s mom asked her that.
“Good”, said Molly’s mom, “I know you’re not the flaming leftist like me, but you’re the kind of person that can talk sense to people on both sides of the political spectrum and change minds. I’ve seen you do it more than once. You can go up against those ego involved academics and take them apart, logical common sense point by point, and even have them thanking you for doing so. Bill Lichtenstein is usually insufferable, but you knocked him down a peg at a couple of my parties and he sings your praises now. Not sure he ever respected a woman’s opinion, even mine, til he ran into you.” Mom laughed through her nose and nodded.
“But getting back to Hayden and company and the document that came out of that Port Huron meeting”, Molly’s mom said, “It just thrills me to see a younger generation of bright minds challenging how WE’VE handled things. The nuclear threat, the arms race, civil rights, economic inequality, big business and the political parties. Advocating for more power for workers, stronger social welfare programs, a war against poverty instead of the Soviets. Nonviolent civil disobedience as a means to participatory democracy. It’s everything your Jack Kennedy talks about but struggles to deliver on, because he’s too enmeshed in the establishment.”
I didn’t know that “generation” word. I figured Molly didn’t know it either and that it was my turn to ask to show I was on Molly’s team.
“What’s a generation?” I asked, then kind of looked at Molly and I could tell that she liked that I did that and that I was on her team asking questions.
“Good question”, mom said, and she looked at me and her eyes got soft and she made just a tiny little smile. “It’s all the people that were born and are growing up around the same time. Your generation includes say from your brother David and kids his age up to older high school kids like Margie.”
“As to Hayden’s manifesto”, mom said, looking at Molly as she said that “manifesto” word and raising her eyebrows, “I don’t know, Joan.” She put her hands on her head with her elbows out to each side and looked up at the sky. I’d never seen her do that before. She puffed out her cheeks and blew air out of her mouth. She moved her head slowly from side to side.
“It SOUNDS good”, she said, “But it all seems so pie in the sky rather than pragmatic. Real change is good legislation, having the votes, one step at a time. Let’s see where Hayden and company go with it.”
“Yes Jane, you’re right”, said Molly’s mom, then putting a hand over her mouth as she finished chewing and swallowing a fried clam, “But profound change… transformational change… requires a vision of how things could be very different.” Molly’s mom looked at Molly and me.
“I suppose we need to define ‘profound’ and ‘transformational’ for these two”, she said. Molly and I looked at each other and nodded.
“I’ll let you take those”, Molly’s mom said to mom, putting her hand on mom’s hand, “My definitions are usually too academic.” Mom smiled and did just a little nod of her head.
“When something’s ‘profound’”, she said, looking at Molly and me, “It gets to the heart of things and is really really important. Like when President Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country’. THAT I would say is profound.” That at least KIND OF made sense, so I nodded. Molly saw me nod so she nodded too.
“And when something’s ‘transformational’”, mom said, “It changes everything. Like for your dad and I when you were born and we became parents. Like maybe for you Coop when your brother was born. You tell me, but I’m thinking it was.”
Mom had said stuff to me like that before about David, and how having a little brother made things different for me. But she’d never asked me to talk about stuff like that with other people around. But one of those other people was my best friend Molly, and the other her mom. I couldn’t even remember not knowing either of them in my whole life. I WAS worried about saying what I was thinking because I didn’t like to talk to grownups that way, but I also didn’t want to say nothing and just be a stupid little kid. Molly and I, we were on the kids’ team, and Mom and Molly’s mom were on the grownup team. But just cuz they were, that didn’t mean they did better thinking than us, even though they knew a lot more stuff. It was like our team was playing their team in a baseball game. They were winning, but our team was up and it was my turn to bat. If I got a hit, and then Molly got one too, then our team could still maybe win. But if I got out, then our team would probably lose, and we’d be just stupid kids.
If it was another kid that asked me, then I just would have said the real answer, which was that I was always worried because David would play with all the toys that used to be just mine. And sometimes I couldn’t pretend the stuff I wanted to, because he was pretending something different first. Another kid would listen to me say that and they’d figure that made sense. And if that other kid had a little brother or sister then he’d KNOW what I said made sense. But then we would talk about something else. But if it was a grownup that asked me, and I said that real stuff, they might get worried that I might not be a good person because I was a bad big brother, or feel sad about me, which would make me even more worried.
So I figured maybe I could say something more like a grownup would, where they didn’t tell you ALL the real stuff, but just a few things like they had everything figured out, even if they didn’t.
“It was strange”, I said, taking a quick look at mom but then looking at Molly because she was on my team, “My room and all my toys used to be just mine but now they’re all David’s… too.” Then I looked down at the table and said, “I know you’re supposed to share, but sometimes it’s hard to.” Woah I thought, that sounded pretty good, the grownups should really like that. They did.
Mom laughed through her nose and said, “Oh Coop, of course it’s hard. You are such a good big brother to David. The whole world struggles with sharing. That’s why we have wars.”
“I’ll second that”, said Molly’s mom shaking her head, “That’s why we continue to have economic and racial inequality.”
Molly and I had finished eating our sandwiches. Mom and Molly’s mom were picking the last of those yucky “fried clams” out of the paper bag. Molly looked at me like she had something she wanted me to see.
“Mom”, she said, still looking at me because I was on her team. Then she looked at her mom and said, “Can Coop and I go over to the park?” She didn’t say my name “Coob” any more like she used to. It made me feel sad because that had always been her special name for me that nobody else said, except maybe David for a while too.
“Well”, said her mom, “We are done with lunch. Jane, I assume you’re good with that.” Mom nodded.
“Coop walks to school each day on his own a lot farther than that, so sure”, she said, smiling at me, “It’s a really nice park, Coop, better than Allmendinger in my opinion.” That kind of made me mad, because she didn’t usually decide if I could go to the park, I decided. And also, I really liked Allmendinger Park. It was my favorite place, because the kids were in charge there. It even had those secret places in the lilac bushes where grownups never went.
“MOM”, I said, “I’ve been to Burns Park a million times!” I hadn’t really been there a million times, but that’s what grownups said all the time so I thought I would say it to them. Molly and I had gone over to the park just sometimes when I came over to her house.
Mom laughed through her nose again and said, “Well okay, I stand corrected. You two have fun.”
“Stick together”, Molly’s mom said, “Coop probably doesn’t know the neighborhood well enough on his own yet.”
Molly blew air out of her open mouth so you could hear it and said, “MOM! We’re not stupid. Why wouldn’t we stick together? Coop’s my best friend.”
Molly’s mom looked at mom and shook her head and made a pretend worried look on her face. “It appears to be a united front, Jane.” Mom nodded and pushed her lips together and did one of those smiles where you don’t open your mouth. I think that was called a “grin”.
“C’mon”, Molly said to me kind of quietly like she didn’t want the grownups to hear as she jumped out of her chair and started running to the driveway and around to the front part of her house. I ran after her. I heard mom and Molly’s mom laughing behind us.
“Those two will probably still do that when they’re our age and we’re old codgers”, I heard Molly’s mom say behind me.
Molly stopped running and we walked down the sidewalk on her street. The maple trees above had branches full of leaves that made a giant green tunnel above us. I knew they were maple trees because they had the pointy leaves like the tree behind our house that mom said was a maple tree. Maple trees were all over the place, like on that “Fifth” street I walked down to get to Bach school.
Molly lived on “Brooklyn Ave”. I saw it on the “street sign” at the place where the other street crossed her street. The sign said the other street was “Lincoln Ave”. I knew that “Lincoln” word because he was the president during the Civil War, the guy with the really tall black hat and beard. I wasn’t sure what that “Ave” part was, but our street sign had it too, “Prescott Ave”. That big “Main Street” by the stadium had signs that said “Main St”, so I figured the “St” was short for “street”. I didn’t know what “Ave” was short for. People usually just said the first part of the name.
We walked down that “Lincoln Ave” street and it got to another street called “Granger Ave”. There was a little place there across Granger between the houses with grass and trees, which looked kind of like a tiny park. The street we were walking next to stopped there, but the sidewalk we were walking on kept going on the other side of the street. I remembered the first time I went there with Molly and her mom I thought that that tiny place was Burns Park, but it wasn’t. It was pretty neat because you had to walk on that sidewalk through that small open part in the fence with trees all along it to get into the real park. It was kind of like that way into that “secret” Wurster park hiding behind all the trees and the houses that Molly and I rode our bikes through when we were little before we went to regular school.
I liked walking through that small open part because everything changed when you did. Where you were just before you went through was all houses and streets and trees above you with everything close together. But then just after you went through there were no more houses, streets or trees and everything was far away, except for the sidewalk which just kept going straight, all the way across the park to where there was finally another street, and on the other side of that street were more houses, streets and trees. I liked stairs the same way. Usually where you were at the bottom of the stairs was really different than where you were at the top part. And I liked to run up and down stairs because I liked to be in one place or the other, but not in between. Being in between made me worried, like I was nowhere.
I stopped walking, looked around and smiled. “That’s so neat”, I said. Molly looked at me and nodded like she felt the same way, since she liked running up and down stairs too, and both her houses had a lot more stairs than my house, which just had stairs to the basement.
Molly and I looked all over at the huge park. To the left there was that really big brick building that had a downstairs and an upstairs, and another upstairs on top of that.
“That’s my school”, Molly said, then pointing, “My room is over there. We can look in!” She ran towards the school. That was Molly, so I ran after her. We got to the big windows that were really close to the ground at the bottom so we could see inside. It looked like my classroom though the desks were kind of different. Molly pointed in the window.
“That’s my desk by the window right here”, she said, “But it’s just first grade, not second grade like you.” She turned and looked at me and said, “I don’t like it that we’re in different grades. I liked it when we were the same.” I nodded. I liked that too. School had made us different.
“What was second grade like?” she asked.
“It was lots of number problems and spelling and cursive writing, which wasn’t much fun”, I said, “But lots of reading too, which was neat. But I liked first grade better. My first grade teacher was really neat. She came to my birthday party.”
“I liked first grade too, and my teacher”, Molly said, “She let us go outside a lot, and we did a lot of reading too. She read us the ‘Borrowers’ book.”
“My first grade teacher read that too”, I said, wishing we had been in first grade together. I imagined Molly in my class. I wondered if she’d want to be friends with Gabe, Jake, Herbie and Amanda. I wondered if she’d be on the girls team with Mary, but I didn’t think so. I wondered if she wouldn’t be on any team, like Amanda.
We walked around and we looked at all the other places in the park. There were lots of kids around playing. It had a lot of the same stuff Allmendinger park had. It had two baseball diamonds, a basketball court, and that house place where the grownup “coaches” were, who would give you balls, bats, bases and other stuff to play baseball or basketball. It had swings and a slide and those giant tubes like at my school that you could climb inside.
It had stuff that Allmendinger didn’t have. FOUR tennis courts instead of just one, and this thing where you could hit tennis balls against a wall so they would bounce back towards you so you could hit them again. There were mostly grownups playing tennis. There was this little hill by the tennis courts that Molly said was called the “big hill”, and was pretty neat, because you could go up to the top and see farther away. We both ran up the hill just like we ran up stairs in houses.
Next to the tennis courts, instead of a regular merry-go-round, there was this different kind that you could sit on and pull on one bar with your hands and push on another bar down below with your feet to make the thing turn around. You didn’t have to keep jumping off to run and push it to go around and then jump back on. Two older kids were doing the pushing and pulling while other younger kids stood in the middle park spinning around. A couple of the girls were screaming.
In the giant open middle part closer to the school were two places where you could play football, because they had those “goal post” things on either side for “touchdowns”. There were kids there playing that other “soccer” game, where you just kicked the ball around but didn’t hold it or throw it.
“But this park doesn’t have lilac bushes like Allmendinger park”, Molly said, “So the only place you can hide and do secret stuff is in the tubes in the playground, but little kids could go in there and mess it up.”
“So where do you do secret stuff?” I asked.
“My friend Allison has bushes in her backyard where you can hide and do stuff”, Molly said.
“Remember that time a long time ago we hid in the spruce tree in my backyard?” I asked. Molly looked out across the park and nodded.
Still looking out at the park instead of me she smiled and said, “Our moms were really mad at us, but it was neat hiding where we could see them but they couldn’t see us. They weren’t in charge of us… until they found us.” I nodded, looking at the side of her face, watching her eyes look at different things far away.
“So what kind of secret stuff do you do in her backyard?” I asked. She looked worried for a second and then her mouth made one of those grin smiles.
I felt her shoulder touch mine. “It’s a secret, silly boy”, she said, laughing through her nose like a grownup. She turned and looked at me for just a second but her cheeks got a little red and she looked worried and turned away again. I couldn’t remember her ever calling me a “silly boy” before when she was talking to me. I couldn’t even remember her ever calling me a “boy” before. I remembered that “My Three Sons” show on TV where that girl that really liked that older boy Robbie called him a “silly boy”. Molly had always told other kids that I was her “best friend”, not her “boyfriend”.
I suddenly started thinking that I wanted to touch her shoulder back with mine, because I was thinking maybe she touched mine on purpose. So while we both looked out at the park and the kids yelling and playing, I kind of banged my shoulder against hers. She laughed a little bit through her nose again.
Not looking at me she said, “If you keep doing that, kids will think you’re my boyfriend.” After she said that, she could tell that I was thinking.
“We’re not old enough to be boyfriend and girlfriend”, she said, “But it would be fun to pretend sometime, but not right now.” I couldn’t believe she really said that, but it did make sense. It was always better to pretend, than do stuff for real, because when you pretended you never had to worry about what you did, because it was just pretending, so you could just do anything you wanted to.
“That would be fun”, I said. She nodded, then stood up.
“C’mon! There’s one other thing I want to show you”, she said, “But it’s not in the park.” Then she ran down the hill towards the middle part of the park. I ran after her, like I always did.
We walked to the other side of the park where the street was, and there was another street that started at the park and went down farther. It had big maple trees on either side. We waited for a car to go by and then we went across. I looked at the pole with the street signs on the corner. One sign said “Wells St”. I figured that was the street we just went across. The other was “Martin Pl”, which was the street we were going to walk down. The house there was really interesting. It had two front doors, like it was two houses pushed together. There was something that felt special about that place, but I couldn’t figure out what.
We walked past it and down that “Martin” street, I didn’t know what the “Pl” was short for. Since we were leaving the park, I wondered if I should ask Molly where we were going. But if I did, maybe she’d think I was afraid of having an adventure, or I was worried that she didn’t know where she was going. But I wasn’t either of those things, so I didn’t ask.
We walked by big houses under the maple trees all with upstairs and downstairs parts, like on Molly’s street. We got to the end of the street, where there was another street that went across it. Molly said we had to go to the right and we walked down next to that new street until we got to where it crossed another street. Then we went to the left and walked down that street. There was a place across the street that just had grass and a bunch of trees. It was kind of like a small park but there were no kids there or things to play on. On our side we walked on the sidewalk by really big houses that were hiding behind the big trees. The houses seemed strange because they had giant letters on the front, letters that didn’t look like regular letters. I wondered if strange people lived in those houses that had those strange letters. When we got to the last house there was another street, and I saw that giant rock thing across it in a little triangle between the streets.
I knew this place, but I had always been in the car driving by it.
“Remember”, Molly said, “When your dad or my dad used to take us to go sledding at the Arb and we’d go by this place. My dad would say, ‘They painted the rock, AGAIN.’” I nodded. Her dad liked to say silly stuff like that. My dad never said silly stuff like that, though he did like singing silly songs sometimes. But songs were different I guess, some of them were supposed to be silly. Kids even liked to sing silly songs, like the one I kept hearing at the park…
Comet, will make your teeth turn green
Comet, it’s made of gasoline
Comet, will help you vomit
So get some Comet, and vomit, today
We looked for cars, and then went across the street to where the giant rock was. It was painted all white with big red letters on one side of it. The top letters were “s”, “d” and “s”, which wasn’t any kind of word Molly or I knew. We couldn’t even try to say it like a word we didn’t know. But below it were smaller letters with words we could read, “new left”. None of the letters were those “capital” ones, only the regular kind you wrote most of the time. The bigger “d” letter was interesting because instead of the regular top part it had a red fist there.
“I wonder what ‘new left’ means”, Molly said. I lifted my shoulders to show I didn’t know either, but I kind of liked the words. “New” was better than “old”, because grownups were old and us kids were new. And “left” was better than “right”, because I was left-handed. But I just thought that and didn’t say it to Molly, because it might make her sad and feel different because she was right-handed.
Cars were driving by around us. We heard one honking its horn and we turned to look. It was a car that looked like it had a bunch of those older kid “students” in it. The ones in the front seat and back stuck their arms out the windows, raised them up and made fists, like the one on top of that “d” letter. It felt like it was about kids changing things. I liked that. So I raised my left hand up high and made a fist like they were doing. Molly saw me do it, so she did one too. The older kids in the car really liked that because they kept honking, yelling and moving their fists up and down, until I couldn’t see their car anymore as it went down the big street.
A really old grownup man and woman walking together on the sidewalk had been watching that car go by and what we did, and they shook their heads like they didn’t like it. I got worried that they’d think we were bad. The man said something to the woman and he walked across the street to where we were by the rock. He looked at us, and at the letters and words on the rock and he looked straight at me with a worried look.
“Do you know what communists are, young man?” he asked. His voice was quiet but it was really fierce. I had heard that word before when grownups talked about that Soviet Union place, like “communists” were the new badguys instead of just the Russians. But I figured I better pretend that I didn’t, pretend I was just a stupid kid, so I just shook my head. Molly shook her head too.
“They destroyed Russia”, he said, “They killed my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, and my mother and father fled to this country with nothing but a suitcase and the clothes on their backs. Now this ‘SDS’, the communists are trying to come here and they’ll destroy this country as well. Do you want that to happen young man? How about you young lady?” Molly and I didn’t know what else to do so we shook our heads.
“Where are your parents?” he asked, still quiet and fierce, “Don’t they care about what you’re doing?”
“Our moms are back at my house”, Molly said, “They said we could play by ourselves.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. The woman had crossed the street now too and was standing behind him. He turned and looked at her and shook his head again.
“They are just kids, Nicky”, she said, “They don’t know any better.”
“They should be ashamed, Katya”, he said to her, “They should have had better instruction from their parents.” Then he turned to us and said, “Go back to your mothers, and God have mercy on your souls!”
He turned and walked away from us back towards the woman. She turned too and walked by his side. He put his arm on her shoulders, still shaking his head.
Molly and I crossed the street the other way together and headed back the way we came. We didn’t say anything to each other, but we walked close to each other so our shoulders touched sometimes. We walked by those really big houses with the giant strange letters on the front and I wondered if people like that man and woman lived in those kinds of houses.
We got back to the park and sat at the top of that “big hill” again, saw all the kids playing, and heard them happy and yelling. That man and woman, the painted rock, and those houses with the giant strange letters seemed far away, like it hadn’t really happened. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and kept feeling mad and worried at the same time, even kind of scared too. Mad that that man thought we were bad, and that that woman thought we were stupid. Worried that even grownups we didn’t know were watching us, and we didn’t know enough to keep ourselves safe from them, or know enough to tell them that they were wrong. And after all that, wondering if kids would have to fight a war with some of the grownups someday, and whether our moms and dads would be on the grownup team.
We talked about what we were going to do for our “summer break”. Molly was going to play with her new friends and play in the park too, but every Saturday her mom said she could come to my house or I could come to hers, maybe other days too because it was summer and we didn’t have to go to school. I told her I would play with my friends too. I’d see most of them in the park and then they could come over to my house or I’d go to theirs. If they lived farther away I could ride my bicycle.
“And every Saturday with me”, she said. I nodded, but she just looked at me, maybe a little worried. I figured that wasn’t enough just to nod. Saying yes was different than just nodding yes.
“Yep”, I said, smiling, “Every Saturday.” Then she smiled too.
She talked about that Larry guy that lived with them that her mom got married to. She said her new friends that didn’t know about her real dad, asked her if that Larry guy was her dad. And Ricky’s sister Jill, who knew Molly’s real dad, asked her if Larry was her “new” dad, which made Molly mad, she didn’t want a new dad. She said that Larry WAS really nice, and he liked to do neat stuff like make those “models” and paint them really good. He even made models that SHE wanted, like “Weird-oh” models like “Freddie Flameout” and “Huey’s Hut Rod”, that she could keep in her room.
But we didn’t talk about what happened at the painted rock, and what that man and woman said to us. I didn’t think we did anything bad, and I didn’t think Molly did either. But we didn’t know what those “sds” letters or those “new left” words meant. If we asked our moms they might tell us they were really bad, but we wouldn’t know if they said that because they really were bad, or just because they were on the grownups team. Those older “student” kids in the car liked them, and liked that we liked them too, and we wanted the kids’ team to win.
I figured it was okay to have another secret with my best friend, like when we got naked together up in her bedroom at her old house. Secrets made best friends even better.