“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those that have lost it.”
Somerset Vaughan, Of Human Bondage
THERE WAS A RED-BRICK HOUSE in Riverdale the neighbourhood kids relished to visit because there were greater freedoms to be found there than in any other household from either side of the railroad tracks that divided Riverdale from posh Riverdale Heights. Built nearly a century earlier and situated on a quiet working class cul-de-sac amidst a cluster of other bungalows, the red-brick house had been handed down three generations of Roses, and had recently begun to reveal signs of premature decay.
The rainwater wasn’t being channeled away properly by the gutters and had seeped underneath the roof’s shingles, damaging the decking and rotting the rafters. As the leak had worsened over the years, it had saturated the attic’s insulation and turned the inside of the exterior walls into a mushy paste, permitting the mold to gain a foothold in the dry-wall and flourish between the walls and ceiling and baseboards.
The patriarch of the household, Andy Rose, was rarely found at home and when he was, he was as indifferent a parent and homeowner as they came. He kept midnight hours, sleeping in short stints during the day, seldomly embarking from the house before nightfall, which suited the Riverdale kids just fine, and even led to suspicions among them that he may have been a vampire, when in truth a silver bullet would have been the quintessential ingredient needed to stop him, or so Terry told his friends to propagate the backwoods myth of his father, who had always seemed to hit the ground running, and never had the time to do any of the domestic things all the neighbors seemed so keen to do.
The matriarch, Olivia Rose, try as she might, could not reign in her two impetuous sons, Terry and Caleb, given her own predilection for daylight hangovers and habitually crooking the elbow before noon. Olivia was nearly as vaporous as her husband during the daytime, making semi-occasional appearances in the kitchen to retrieve provisions from the refrigerator and cupboards, before returning to the bedroom where her husband rested and then locking the door behind.
Sometimes she’d give thoughtful pause while crossing the living quarters to scold Terry and Caleb into guilt for not cleaning the many scattered soiled cloths and plates and glasses off the hardwood floor, which was scored and creviced like the palm of a farmhand from the children’s innumerable games that were seraphical during the day when their father rested, and diabolic at dusk when he departed.
“Is there anything to eat,” Caleb asked his brother, who busied himself carving runes into a piece of a wood he had retrieved from the forest at Sherman Oaks, fashioning it into a staff with the help of a few sanding pads and varnish, which gave the stick a wrought fibrous texture that shimmered and beguiled his fantastical nine-year old imagination.
“There’s bologna in the fridge, Chancey,” Terry replied with no little consternation written over his face, so focused he was in the detail of carving these new runes into the wood, protective spells he had copied from a book on magic he had found in the Riverdale public library, which he now faithfully transcribed onto the staff with the help of Firebrand, the true-blue pocketknife his father gifted him when he had turned nine earlier that summer.
“Go fetch the bologna and the bread and I’ll carve you a sandwich,” Terry added, knowing his mother would skin him alive if he allowed Caleb, who was three years his junior, to handle a kitchen knife.
“Don’t call me, Chancey, you cheesedick,” Caleb said, as he bridged the gap to the kitchen with one feckless leap from armchair to ottoman that sagged and gasped under his weight like an overworked mare, and then once more mercilessly vaulting to the last pillow before the flexure of the armrest, his weight causing the stuffing to expose itself through a tear in the tatterdemalion fabric.
“The cheesiest dick of them all,” Terry uttered absentmindedly, unfazed by his younger brother’s taunt.
Terry let Abelard count the money the gang had scraped together over the last few weeks because he was their unofficial bookkeeper, but also because Abelard wasn’t like the rest of them. Having come from an upper-middle class family that lived in a three-storey house in Riverdale Heights, and his father a chartered accountant to boot, Terry figured counting money must have run through the family bloodline, and being leader of the gang meant giving his friends jobs they were suited for, like with Randolph, who was as reliable a runner as they came. So when they decided to spend a little of their hard-earned bounty to acquire provisions like five-cent Hubba-Bubba gum, Randolph was the right guy for the job, because he was quick and did not mess up any orders, and always came back with right amount of change.
In the dreary unfinished basement of the Roses house there was an old octopus-like McClary furnace that acted as the official treasury for the array of coins the gang had gathered from allowances, pickpocketing, and sheer dumb chance. There were so many dents, cavities, and indentations in the old McClary “Crystal” furnace, that it made hiding the gang’s purse a cinch. Terry had even taken to the habit of scattering the coins in seven different directions amidst the furnace for “security purposes,” as he called it. One time Abelard had caught Terry in the midst of one his finicky shuffling deposits and decided to interrupt him when he knew Terry was not to be disturbed while in the pit with the octopus.
“Mind your own business, Poindexter,” Terry said. “You might know a thing or two about counting money, but you don’t know anything about guarding it,” he angrily added, while peeking at Abelard from behind one of the octopus’ large round ducts with the galvanized housing to make sure he was not being spied on, and Abelard begrudgingly took him at his word, which is what the gang usually did with Terry, despite the occasional challenge or two.
Lavinia had come up with the bright idea of changing the coins into paper money during her last visit and Terry thought that was bang-up thinking, so Terry collected all the coins from the hollows of the octopus-shaped furnace, and the gang made a collective trip to Don’s Milk on Munro to make the monetary exchange, but Don, a second-generation Korean who had inherited the convenience store from his father, was sick and tired of the neighbourhood kid’s many coming and goings, and of being constantly on the look-out for them stealing, even though that hardly ever happened, denied them the currency swap, full-stop, especially since they had not even committed to buying anything during this particular stopover.
“Change is for customers only, ” he said.
“We don’t want change, we want money,” replied Heloise.
“Oh, forget it,” said Terry and summoned a quick meeting outside of Don’s Milk to discuss matters further. Their hard earned booty had been collected and saved towards purchasing a feast of sorts from one of the neighbourhood burger joints, a place by the name of “King’s Park” that was located on, coincidentally, King’s Park Boulevard, not too too far from the Rose’s house. The burger joint was locally known for its thick Neapolitan milkshakes and French fries which were cut thick and extra fluffy on the inside, as opposed to the crispy shoestring fries that McDonald’s sold that never filled anybody’s belly.
Most of the gang had already been to King’s Park with their parents, but it was a big deal for Terry to go with his friends, and with his friends only, and for the gang to pay their own way, that was important too. Terry’s parents had never taken him or Caleb to King’s Park, so he had never had the expansive feeling the others had of being able to order the trifecta of a burger, fries, and milkshake in one fell swoop. Thirty dollars would cover seven “King” combos. One for himself, Abelard, Aeneas, Caleb, Heloise, Lavinia, and Randolph. This was Terry’s grand plan for the summer and everyone decided to tag along.
Through prudent gathering and disciplined spending, they had amassed twenty-four dollars in only four-weeks time, which was a lifetime to some children his own age, and they were now a only a stone’s throw from dining at the court of the King. Perseverance was key. But Terry knew the gang was growing restless for a little adventure and being a good leader meant knowing when to push and when to pull.
“Seven Chupa-Chups will cost about seventy-cents, bringing the purse down to twenty-three dollars,” Terry said, which was hurtful in the short term, but in the longview, paper money was more legitimate than coin, and would motivate the gang over the last hump towards their final goal.
“Make the deal,” said Aeneas, and Terry agreed, and when those two agreed, usually everybody else agreed too.
“Come down from there, you dummy!” Andy scolded Terry, who had climbed to the top of a neighbour’s home to get away from his father, who was likely to tan his back after catching Terry lifting a five-dollar note from his coat pocket. “I promise you nothing will happen.”
“You’re lying,” said Terry, leaning back from the edge of the roof like he was taking the sunshine in, his feet dangling at the side of the gutter, kicking the trelliswork that had enabled him to make the climb, and it was precisely this posture that had angered his father even further, because Terry looked so unfazed: unfazed at being caught in the act of pickpocketing, unfazed at being chased down the street by his father’s powder blue Stingray, unfazed at having to scale the rose trellis alongside the neighbour’s house in a matter of steps like a crazed alley cat, sitting on the edge of roof like it was the edge of a pier, with the wide blue expanse before him. It pissed Andy off because he wished could have seen things with the same pluck and the same sense of entitlement as his eldest son. But as soon as Andy became of aware of why he was so angry he immediately let the feeling go and his tone radically changed.
“Let’s go home, kid,” said Andy, straightening his clothes, tucking his shirt into his pants, and brushing a couple of the loose hairs off his shoulder, that may or may not have been his own, he didn’t want to think of his speculative hair-loss now. “It’s not worth it.”
“I’ll be home later,” said Terry
“It’s not worth it, kid,” said Andy, suddenly feeling at a loss for words. “It all catches up to you eventually,” he mumbled. “It’s nobody’s fault.”
“I’m the one doing this,” said Terry, almost uncharacteristically, even though he said mysterious things all of the time, and sometimes he even sounded much much older than his years. His father hardly recognized him at that moment and it made him sad to think how little he knew his son at all.
“Just remember, friends are not family,” said Andy with a sense of frustration, trying to get his point across to his son and futilely trying to convey a little bit more. “Get down from the roof before the neighbours call the cops.” He looked up at Terry again for a moment, shielding his eyes from the diminished sun with the palm of his hand, and then he turned to go away. “I’ll see you at home.”
Terry stayed on the roof until the sun went all the way down and then for some time longer. He couldn’t smell his father’s distinctive brand of cigarettes, so he probably wasn’t waiting for him in the driveway any longer, or even at home for that matter. The coast was clear. He could go home and play hockey with Caleb in the basement at any time of his choosing and not worry about getting skinned. But he decided to stay on the roof for a little longer and gaze at the moon’s silver face emerging from behind the clouds and then Terry howled and howled at his conquest.
Aeneas looked for Terry and Caleb everywhere he could think of: the schoolyard, the Sherman Oaks forest, the arcades, but the two of them were nowhere to be found. He went to the Rose’s home but nobody was answering at the door and all the lights were dim inside. The gang was supposed to be meeting at the house later in the afternoon, but Aeneas decided to get a head start on the day, having got clearance from his mom earlier after his daily chores had been completed.
He was beat from having mowed the lawn and having collected the cut-grass in double time, but if that meant he got an extra hour of time with Terry and Caleb before the remainder of the gang arrived, the aches and pains in his body would probably quiet down as soon Terry, Caleb, and him got to the task at hand, which was usually an honourable game of handball at the schoolyard that was great whenever it was just the three of them, and even when Randolph jumped in it was still pretty good, but whenever Lavinia or Heloise were around, or that sap, Abelard, everything was different, different and shitty at the same time.
Aeneas looked through the cracked and murky basement window one more time, and in the stark depths he dimly saw an old hockey card box laying on the ground that was leftover from their lark last summer, when Terry and him had saved nearly twenty-dollars between them and bought an entire box of hockey cards, and had nearly one-hundred cards at their disposal, which was unheard of anywhere. The semi-reflective box lay close to the “Crystal” furnace, too close to be merely a coincidence. He had a hunch about the empty box, in fact, a hunch about things in general, and Aeneas was usually pretty bang on when he had deep feeling in his gut.
When they last saw each other, Terry was looking for something to store the paper money they had recently acquired from Don’s Milk and what would have been a better container than last summer’s prized acquisition? Aeneas would have recognized that O-Pee-Chee box anywhere. He only needed to see a fraction of it to make out the rest. That’s how he was seeing the box in his dreams for months before the acquisition last summer and for months afterwards too. In bits and bobs, like a shining object seen through a keyhole. There was no doubt about it. So Aeneas decided to hit the road straight away towards King’s Park to investigate his hunch.
When he arrived at the corner of King’s Park Boulevard, his stomach rose into his throat so rapidly that he nearly choked, but it wasn’t because he was hungry or sick or anything. He saw a pair of bicycles laying in a metallic heap on the ground that glistened just beyond the front doors of the burger joint and one of the slanted wheels was slightly spinning from the gentle breeze. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were kids all over the patio contentendly licking from their ice cream cones and there was an air of summer bliss and merriment all over, but he did not have the nerve to go inside the burger joint to look for Terry and Caleb.
He walked slowly past the multicoloured patio tables with the sprung umbrellas and tried to look inside the burger joint but he could not see much beyond his own reflection in the window because of the refracted light from the sun that was hanging extra low that day. The smell of charbroiled burgers made his stomach suddenly rumble and his hunger almost made him forget why he was there in the first place, but he still did not have nerve to go inside, so he kept on walking and walking.
When he had crossed the street at Mortimer, he did not even notice that the pedestrian lights had changed to red and a few cars took to honking at him. But he kept on walking and walking, numb to everything he saw, and touched, and smelled, until he reached the furthest point he had ever been away from home, at least on his own, which wasn’t very far at all. He was hardly at O’Connor Drive, but it felt like a million miles anyhow, and then he came to his senses and he turned back for home. He was sure there was leftover meatloaf in the fridge. And he wanted some now.