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I. A Boy and His Mother. Bobby's Birthday.

The New Roomer. Of Time and Strangers.

Bobby Garfield's father had been one of those fellows who start losing their hair in their twenties and are completely bald by the age of forty-five or so. Randall Garfield was spared this extremity by dying of a heart attack at thirty-six. He was a real-estate agent, and breathed his last on the kitchen floor of someone else's house. The potential buyer was in the living room, trying to call an ambulance on a disconnected phone, when Bobby's dad passed away. At this time Bobby was three. He had vague memories of a man tickling him and then kissing his cheeks and his forehead. He was pretty sure that man had been his dad. Sadly missed, it said on Randall Garfield's gravestone, but his mom never seemed all that sad, and as for Bobby himself...well, how could you miss a guy you could hardly remember?

Eight years after his father's death, Bobby fell violently in love with the twenty-six-inch Schwinn in the window of the Harwich Western Auto. He hinted to his mother about the Schwinn in every way he knew, and finally pointed it out to her one night when they were walking home from the movies (the show had been The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which Bobby didn't understand but liked anyway, especially the part where Dorothy McGuire flopped back in a chair and showed off her long legs). As they passed the hardware store, Bobby mentioned casually that the bike in the window would sure make a great eleventh-birthday present for some lucky kid.

"Don't even think about it," she said. "I can't afford a bike for your birthday. Your father didn't exactly leave us well off, you know."

Although Randall had been dead ever since Truman was President and now Eisenhower was almost done with his eight-year cruise, Your father didn't exactly leave us well off was still his mother's most common response to anything Bobby suggested which might entail an expenditure of more than a dollar. Usually the comment was accompanied by a reproachful look, as if the man had run off rather than died.

No bike for his birthday. Bobby pondered this glumly on their walk home, his pleasure at the strange, muddled movie they had seen mostly gone. He didn't argue with his mother, or try to coax her -- that would bring on a counterattack, and when Liz Garfield counterattacked she took no prisoners -- but he brooded on the lost bike...and the lost father. Sometimes he almost hated his father. Sometimes all that kept him from doing so was the sense, unanchored but very strong, that his mother wanted him to. As they reached Commonwealth Park and walked along the side of it -- two blocks up they would turn left onto Broad Street, where they lived -- he went against his usual misgivings and asked a question about Randall Garfield.

"Didn't he leave anything, Mom? Anything at all?" A week or two before, he'd read a Nancy Drew mystery where some poor kid's inheritance had been hidden behind an old clock in an abandoned mansion. Bobby didn't really think his father had left gold coins or rare stamps stashed someplace, but if there was something, maybe they could sell it in Bridgeport. Possibly at one of the hockshops. Bobby didn't know exactly how hocking things worked, but he knew what the shops looked like -- they had three gold balls hanging out front. And he was sure the hockshop guys would be happy to help them. Of course it was just a kid's dream, but Carol Gerber up the street had a whole set of dolls her father, who was in the Navy, had sent from overseas. If fathers gave things -- which they did -- it stood to reason that fathers sometimes left things.

When Bobby asked the question, they were passing one of the streetlamps which ran along this side of Commonwealth Park, and Bobby saw his mother's mouth change as it always did when he ventured a question about his late father. The change made him think of a purse she had: when you pulled on the drawstrings, the hole at the top got smaller.

"I'll tell you what he left," she said as they started up Broad Street Hill. Bobby already wished he hadn't asked, but of course it was too late now. Once you got her started, you couldn't get her stopped, that was the thing. "He left a life insurance policy which lapsed the year before he died. Little did I know that until he was gone and everyone -- including the undertaker -- wanted their little piece of what I didn't have. He also left a large stack of unpaid bills, which I have now pretty much taken care of -- people have been very understanding of my situation, Mr. Biderman in particular, and I'll never say they haven't been."

All this was old stuff, as boring as it was bitter, but then she told Bobby something new. "Your father," she said as they approached the apartment house which stood halfway up Broad Street Hill, "never met an inside straight he didn't like."

"What's an inside straight, Mom?"

"Never mind. But I'll tell you one thing, Bobby-O: you don't ever want to let me catch you playing cards for money. I've had enough of that to last me a lifetime."

Bobby wanted to enquire further, but knew better; more questions were apt to set off a tirade. It occurred to him that perhaps the movie, which had been about unhappy husbands and wives, had upset her in some way he could not, as a mere kid, understand. He would ask his friend John Sullivan about inside straights at school on Monday. Bobby thought it was poker, but wasn't completely sure.

"There are places in Bridgeport that take men's money," she said as they neared the apartment house where they lived. "Foolish men go to them. Foolish men make messes, and it's usually the women of the world that have to clean them up later on. Well..."

Bobby knew what was coming next; it was his mother's all-time favorite.

"Life isn't fair," said Liz Garfield as she took out her housekey and prepared to unlock the door of 149 Broad Street in the town of Harwich, Connecticut. It was April of 1960, the night breathed spring perfume, and standing beside her was a skinny boy with his dead father's risky red hair. She hardly ever touched his hair; on the infrequent occasions when she caressed him, it was usually his arm or his cheek which she touched.

"Life isn't fair," she repeated. She opened the door and they went in.

It was true that his mother had not been treated like a princess, and it was certainly too bad that her husband had expired on a linoleum floor in an empty house at the age of thirty-six, but Bobby sometimes thought that things could have been worse. There might have been two kids instead of just one, for instance. Or three. Hell, even four.

Or suppose she had to work some really hard job to support the two of them? Sully's mom worked at the Tip-Top Bakery downtown, and during the weeks when she had to light the ovens, Sully-John and his two older brothers hardly even saw her. Also Bobby had observed the women who came filing out of the Peerless Shoe Company when the three o'clock whistle blew (he himself got out of school at two-thirty), women who all seemed way too skinny or way too fat, women with pale faces and fingers stained a dreadful old-blood color, women with downcast eyes who carried their work shoes and pants in Total Grocery shopping bags. Last fall he'd seen men and women picking apples outside of town when he went to a church fair with Mrs. Gerber and Carol and little Ian (who Carol always called Ian-the-Snot). When he asked about them Mrs. Gerber said they were migrants, just like some kinds of birds -- always on the move, picking whatever crops had just come ripe. Bobby's mother could have been one of those, but she wasn't.

What she was was Mr. Donald Biderman's secretary at Home Town Real Estate, the company Bobby's dad had been working for when he had his heart attack. Bobby guessed she might first have gotten the job because Donald Biderman liked Randall and felt sorry for her -- widowed with a son barely out of diapers -- but she was good at it and worked hard. Quite often she worked late. Bobby had been with his mother and Mr. Biderman together on a couple of occasions -- the company picnic was the one he remembered most clearly, but there had also been the time Mr. Biderman had driven them to the dentist's in Bridgeport when Bobby had gotten a tooth knocked out during a recess game -- and the two grownups had a way of looking at each other. Sometimes Mr. Biderman called her on the phone at night, and during those conversations she called him Don. But "Don" was old and Bobby didn't think about him much.

Bobby wasn't exactly sure what his mom did during her days (and her evenings) at the office, but he bet it beat making shoes or picking apples or lighting the Tip-Top Bakery ovens at four-thirty in the morning. Bobby bet it beat those jobs all to heck and gone. Also, when it came to his mom, if you asked about certain stuff you were asking for trouble. If you asked, for instance, how come she could afford three new dresses from Sears, one of them silk, but not three monthly payments of $11.50 on the Schwinn in the Western Auto window (it was red and silver, and just looking at it made Bobby's gut cramp with longing). Ask about stuff like that and you were asking for real trouble.

Bobby didn't. He simply set out to earn the price of the bike himself. It would take him until the fall, perhaps even until the winter, and that particular model might be gone from the Western Auto's window by then, but he would keep at it. You had to keep your nose to the grindstone and your shoulder to the wheel. Life wasn't easy, and life wasn't fair.

When Bobby's eleventh birthday rolled around on the last Tuesday of April, his mom gave him a small flat package wrapped in silver paper. Inside was an orange library card. An adult library card. Goodbye Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Don Winslow of the Navy. Hello to all the rest of it, stories as full of mysterious muddled passion as The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Not to mention bloody daggers in tower rooms. (There were mysteries and tower rooms in the stories about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but precious little blood and never any passion.)

"Just remember that Mrs. Kelton on the desk is a friend of mine," Mom said. She spoke in her accustomed dry tone of warning, but she was pleased by his pleasure -- she could see it. "If you try to borrow anything racy like Peyton Place or Kings Row, I'll find out."

Bobby smiled. He knew she would.

"If it's that other one, Miss Busybody, and she asks what you're doing with an orange card, you tell her to turn it over. I've put written permission over my signature."

"Thanks, Mom. This is swell."

She smiled, bent, and put a quick dry swipe of the lips on his cheek, gone almost before it was there. "I'm glad you're happy. If I get home early enough, we'll go to the Colony for fried clams and ice cream. You'll have to wait for the weekend for your cake; I don't have time to bake until then. Now put on your coat and get moving, sonnyboy. You'll be late for school."

They went down the stairs and out onto the porch together. There was a Town Taxi at the curb. A man in a poplin jacket was leaning in the passenger window, paying the driver. Behind him was a little cluster of luggage and paper bags, the kind with handles.

"That must be the man who just rented the room on the third floor," Liz said. Her mouth had done its shrinking trick again. She stood on the top step of the porch, appraising the man's narrow fanny, which poked toward them as he finished his business with the taxi driver. "I don't trust people who move their things in paper bags. To me a person's things in a paper sack just looks slutty."

"He has suitcases, too," Bobby said, but he didn't need his mother to point out that the new tenant's three little cases weren't such of a much. None matched; all looked as if they had been kicked here from California by someone in a bad mood.

Bobby and his mom walked down the cement path. The Town Taxi pulled away. The man in the poplin jacket turned around. To Bobby, people fell into three broad categories: kids, grownups, and old folks. Old folks were grownups with white hair. The new tenant was of this third sort. His face was thin and tired-looking, not wrinkled (except around his faded blue eyes) but deeply lined. His white hair was baby-fine and receding from a liverspotted brow. He was tall and stooped-over in a way that made Bobby think of Boris Karloff in the Shock Theater movies they showed Friday nights at 11:30 on WPIX. Beneath the poplin jacket were cheap workingman's clothes that looked too big for him. On his feet were scuffed cordovan shoes.

"Hello, folks," he said, and smiled with what looked like an effort. "My name's Theodore Brautigan. I guess I'm going to live here awhile."

He held out his hand to Bobby's mother, who touched it just briefly. "I'm Elizabeth Garfield. This is my son, Robert. You'll have to pardon us, Mr. Brattigan -- "

"It's Brautigan, ma'am, but I'd be happy if you and your boy would just call me Ted."

"Yes, well, Robert's late for school and I'm late for work. Nice to meet you, Mr. Brattigan. Hurry on, Bobby. Tempus fugit."

She began walking downhill toward town; Bobby began walking uphill (and at a slower pace) toward Harwich Elementary, on Asher Avenue. Three or four steps into this journey he stopped and looked back. He felt that his mom had been rude to Mr. Brautigan, that she had acted stuck-up. Being stuck-up was the worst of vices in his little circle of friends. Carol loathed a stuck-up person; so did Sully-John. Mr. Brautigan would probably be halfway up the walk by now, but if he wasn't, Bobby wanted to give him a smile so he'd know at least one member of the Garfield family wasn't stuck-up.

His mother had also stopped and was also looking back. Not because she wanted another look at Mr. Brautigan; that idea never crossed Bobby's mind. No, it was her son she had looked back at. She'd known he was going to turn around before Bobby knew it himself, and at this he felt a sudden darkening in his normally bright nature. She sometimes said it would be a snowy day in Sarasota before Bobby could put one over on her, and he supposed she was right about that. How old did you have to be to put one over on your mother, anyway? Twenty? Thirty? Or did you maybe have to wait until she got old and a little chicken-soupy in the head?

Mr. Brautigan hadn't started up the walk. He stood at its sidewalk end with a suitcase in each hand and the third one under his right arm (the three paper bags he had moved onto the grass of 149 Broad), more bent than ever under this weight. He was right between them, like a tollgate or something.

Liz Garfield's eyes flew past him to her son's. Go, they said. Don't say a word. He's new, a man from anywhere or nowhere, and he's arrived here with half his things in shopping bags. Don't say a word, Bobby, just go.

But he wouldn't. Perhaps because he had gotten a library card instead of a bike for his birthday. "It was nice to meet you, Mr. Brautigan," Bobby said. "Hope you like it here. Bye."

"Have a good day at school, son," Mr. Brautigan said. "Learn a lot. Your mother's right -- tempus fugit."

Bobby looked at his mother to see if his small rebellion might be forgiven in light of this equally small flattery, but Mom's mouth was ungiving. She turned and started down the hill without another word. Bobby went on his own way, glad he had spoken to the stranger even if his mother later made him regret it.

As he approached Carol Gerber's house, he took out the orange library card and looked at it. It wasn't a twenty-six-inch Schwinn, but it was still pretty good. Great, actually. A whole world of books to explore, and so what if it had only cost two or three rocks? Didn't they say it was the thought that counted?

Well...it was what his mom said, anyway.

He turned the card over. Written on the back in her strong hand was this message: "To whom it may concern: This is my son's library card. He has my permission to take out three books a week from the adult section of the Harwich Public Library." It was signed Elizabeth Penrose Garfield.

Beneath her name, like a P.S., she had added this: Robert will be responsible for his own overdue fines.

"Birthday boy!" Carol Gerber cried, startling him, and rushed out from behind a tree where she had been lying in wait. She threw her arms around his neck and smacked him hard on the cheek. Bobby blushed, looking around to see if anyone was watching -- God, it was hard enough to be friends with a girl without surprise kisses -- but it was okay. The usual morning flood of students was moving schoolward along Asher Avenue at the top of the hill, but down here they were alone.

Bobby scrubbed at his cheek.

"Come on, you liked it," she said, laughing.

"Did not," said Bobby, although he had.

"What'd you get for your birthday?"

"A library card," Bobby said, and showed her. "An adult library card."

"Cool!" Was that sympathy he saw in her eyes? Probably not. And so what if it was? "Here. For you." She gave him a Hallmark envelope with his name printed on the front. She had also stuck on some hearts and teddy bears.

Bobby opened the envelope with mild trepidation, reminding himself that he could tuck the card deep into the back pocket of his chinos if it was gushy.

It wasn't, though. Maybe a little bit on the baby side (a kid in a Stetson on a horse, HAPPY BIRTHDAY BUCKAROO in letters that were supposed to look like wood on the inside), but not gushy. Love, Carol was a little gushy, but of course she was a girl, what could you do?

"Thanks."

"It's sort of a baby card, I know, but the others were even worse," Carol said matter-of-factly. A little farther up the hill Sully-John was waiting for them, working his Bo-lo Bouncer for all it was worth, going under his right arm, going under his left arm, going behind his back. He didn't try going between his legs anymore; he'd tried it once in the schoolyard and rapped himself a good one in the nuts. Sully had screamed. Bobby and a couple of other kids had laughed until they cried. Carol and three of her girlfriends had rushed over to ask what was wrong, and the boys all said nothing -- Sully-John said the same, although he'd been pale and almost crying. Boys are boogers, Carol had said on that occasion, but Bobby didn't believe she really thought so. She wouldn't have jumped out and given him that kiss if she did, and it had been a good kiss, a smackeroo. Better than the one his mother had given him, actually.

"It's not a baby card," he said.

"No, but it almost is," she said. "I thought about getting you a grownup card, but man, they are gushy."

"I know," Bobby said.

"Are you going to be a gushy adult, Bobby?"

"I hope not," he said. "Are you?"

"No. I'm going to be like my mom's friend Rionda."

"Rionda's pretty fat," Bobby said doubtfully.

"Yeah, but she's cool. I'm going to go for the cool without the fat."

"There's a new guy moving into our building. The room on the third floor. My mom says it's really hot up there."

"Yeah? What's he like?" She giggled. "Is he ushy-gushy?"

"He's old," Bobby said, then paused to think. "But he had an interesting face. My mom didn't like him on sight because he had some of his stuff in shopping bags."

Sully-John joined them. "Happy birthday, you bastard," he said, and clapped Bobby on the back. Bastard was Sully-John's current favorite word; Carol's was cool; Bobby was currently between favorite words, although he thought ripshit had a certain ring to it.

"If you swear, I won't walk with you," Carol said.

"Okay," Sully-John said companionably. Carol was a fluffy blonde who looked like a Bobbsey Twin after some growing up; John Sullivan was tall, black-haired, and green-eyed. A Joe Hardy kind of boy. Bobby Garfield walked between them, his momentary depression forgotten. It was his birthday and he was with his friends and life was good. He tucked Carol's birthday card into his back pocket and his new library card down deep in his front pocket, where it could not fall out or be stolen. Carol started to skip. Sully-John told her to stop.

"Why?" Carol asked. "I like to skip."

"I like to say bastard, but I don't if you ask me," Sully-John replied reasonably.

Carol looked at Bobby.

"Skipping -- at least without a rope -- is a little on the baby side, Carol," Bobby said apologetically, then shrugged. "But you can if you want. We don't mind, do we, S-J?"

"Nope," Sully-John said, and got going with the Bo-lo Bouncer again. Back to front, up to down, whap-whap-whap.

Carol didn't skip. She walked between them and pretended she was Bobby Garfield's girlfriend, that Bobby had a driver's license and a Buick and they were going to Bridgeport to see the WKBW Rock and Roll Extravaganza. She thought Bobby was extremely cool. The coolest thing about him was that he didn't know it.

Bobby got home from school at three o'clock. He could have been there sooner, but picking up returnable bottles was part of his Get-a-Bike-by-Thanksgiving campaign, and he detoured through the brushy area just off Asher Avenue looking for them. He found three Rheingolds and a Nehi. Not much, but hey, eight cents was eight cents. "It all mounts up" was another of his mom's sayings.

Bobby washed his hands (a couple of those bottles had been pretty scurgy), got a snack out of the icebox, read a couple of old Superman comics, got another snack out of the icebox, then watched American Bandstand. He called Carol to tell her Bobby Darin was going to be on -- she thought Bobby Darin was deeply cool, especially the way he snapped his fingers when he sang "Queen of the Hop" -- but she already knew. She was watching with three or four of her numbskull girlfriends; they all giggled pretty much nonstop in the background. The sound made Bobby think of birds in a petshop. On TV, Dick Clark was currently showing how much pimple-grease just one Stri-Dex Medicated Pad could sop up.

Mom called at four o'clock. Mr. Biderman needed her to work late, she said. She was sorry, but birthday supper at the Colony was off. There was leftover beef stew in the fridge; he could have that and she would be home by eight to tuck him in. And for heaven's sake, Bobby, remember to turn off the gas-ring when you're done with the stove.

Bobby returned to the television feeling disappointed but not really surprised. On Bandstand, Dick was now announcing the Rate-a-Record panel. Bobby thought the guy in the middle looked as if he could use a lifetime supply of Stri-Dex pads.

He reached into his front pocket and drew out the new orange library card. His mood began to brighten again. He didn't need to sit here in front of the TV with a stack of old comic-books if he didn't want to. He could go down to the library and break in his new card -- his new adult card. Miss Busybody would be on the desk, only her real name was Miss Harrington and Bobby thought she was beautiful. She wore perfume. He could always smell it on her skin and in her hair, faint and sweet, like a good memory. And although Sully-John would be at his trombone lesson right now, after the library Bobby could go up his house, maybe play some pass.

Also, he thought, I can take those bottles to Spicer's -- I've got a bike to earn this summer.

All at once, life seemed very full.

Sully's mom invited Bobby to stay for supper, but he told her no thanks, I better get home. He would much have preferred Mrs. Sullivan's pot roast and crispy oven potatoes to what was waiting for him back at the apartment, but he knew that one of the first things his mother would do when she got back from the office was check in the fridge and see if the Tupperware with the leftover stew inside was gone. If it wasn't, she would ask Bobby what he'd had for supper. She would be calm about this question, even offhand. If he told her he'd eaten at Sully-John's she would nod, ask him what they'd had and if there had been dessert, also if he'd thanked Mrs. Sullivan; she might even sit on the couch with him and share a bowl of ice cream while they watched Sugarfoot on TV. Everything would be fine...except it wouldn't be. Eventually there would be a payback. It might not come for a day or two, even a week, but it would come. Bobby knew that almost without knowing he knew it. She undoubtedly did have to work late, but eating leftover stew by himself on his birthday was also punishment for talking to the new tenant when he wasn't supposed to. If he tried to duck that punishment, it would mount up just like money in a savings account.

When Bobby came back from Sully-John's it was quarter past six and getting dark. He had two new books to read, a Perry Mason called The Case of the Velvet Claws and a science-fiction novel by Clifford Simak called Ring Around the Sun. Both looked totally ripshit, and Miss Harrington hadn't given him a hard time at all. On the contrary: she told him he was reading above his level and to keep it up.

Walking home from S-J's, Bobby made up a story where he and Miss Harrington were on a cruise-boat that sank. They were the only two survivors, saved from drowning by finding a life preserver marked S.S. LUSITANIC. They washed up on a little island with palm trees and jungles and a volcano, and as they lay on the beach Miss Harrington was shivering and saying she was cold, so cold, couldn't he please hold her and warm her up, which he of course could and did, my pleasure, Miss Harrington, and then the natives came out of the jungle and at first they seemed friendly but it turned out they were cannibals who lived on the slopes of the volcano and killed their victims in a clearing ringed with skulls, so things looked bad but just as he and Miss Harrington were pulled toward the cooking pot the volcano started to rumble and --

"Hello, Robert."

Bobby looked up, even more startled than he'd been when Carol Gerber raced out from behind the tree to put a birthday smackeroo on his cheek. It was the new man in the house. He was sitting on the top porch step and smoking a cigarette. He had exchanged his old scuffed shoes for a pair of old scuffed slippers and had taken off his poplin jacket -- the evening was warm. He looked at home, Bobby thought.

"Oh, Mr. Brautigan. Hi."

"I didn't mean to startle you."

"You didn't -- "

"I think I did. You were a thousand miles away. And it's Ted. Please."

"Okay." But Bobby didn't know if he could stick to Ted. Calling a grownup (especially an old grownup) by his first name went against not only his mother's teaching but his own inclination.

"Was school good? You learned new things?"

"Yeah, fine." Bobby shifted from foot to foot; swapped his new books from hand to hand.

"Would you sit with me a minute?"

"Sure, but I can't for long. Stuff to do, you know." Supper to do, mostly -- the leftover stew had grown quite attractive in his mind by now.

"Absolutely. Things to do and tempus fugit."

As Bobby sat down next to Mr. Brautigan -- Ted -- on the wide porch step, smelling the aroma of his Chesterfield, he thought he had never seen a man who looked as tired as this one. It couldn't be the moving in, could it? How worn out could you get when all you had to move in were three little suitcases and three carryhandle shopping bags? Bobby supposed there might be men coming later on with stuff in a truck, but he didn't really think so. It was just a room -- a big one, but still just a single room with a kitchen on one side and everything else on the other. He and Sully-John had gone up there and looked around after old Miss Sidley had her stroke and went to live with her daughter.

"Tempus fugit means time flies," Bobby said. "Mom says it a lot. She also says time and tide wait for no man and time heals all wounds."

"Your mother is a woman of many sayings, is she?"

"Yeah," Bobby said, and suddenly the idea of all those sayings made him tired. "Many sayings."

"Ben Jonson called time the old bald cheater," Ted Brautigan said, drawing deeply on his cigarette and then exhaling twin streams through his nose. "And Boris Pasternak said we are time's captives, the hostages of eternity."

Bobby looked at him in fascination, his empty belly temporarily forgotten. He loved the idea of time as an old bald cheater -- it was absolutely and completely right, although he couldn't have said why...and didn't that very inability to say why somehow add to the coolness? It was like a thing inside an egg, or a shadow behind pebbled glass.

"Who's Ben Jonson?"

"An Englishman, dead these many years," Mr. Brautigan said. "Self-centered and foolish about money, by all accounts; prone to flatulence as well. But -- "

"What's that? Flatulence?"

Ted stuck his tongue between his lips and made a brief but very realistic farting sound. Bobby put his hands to his mouth and giggled into his cupped fingers.

"Kids think farts are funny," Ted Brautigan said, nodding. "Yeah. To a man my age, though, they're just part of life's increasingly strange business. Ben Jonson said a good many wise things between farts, by the way. Not so many as Dr. Johnson -- Samuel Johnson, that would be -- but still a good many."

"And Boris..."

"Pasternak. A Russian," Mr. Brautigan said dismissively. "Of no account, I think. May I see your books?"

Bobby handed them over. Mr. Brautigan (Ted, he reminded himself, you're supposed to call him Ted) passed the Perry Mason back after a cursory glance at the title. The Clifford Simak novel he held longer, at first squinting at the cover through the curls of cigarette smoke that rose past his eyes, then paging through it. He nodded as he did so.

"I have read this one," he said. "I had a lot of time to read previous to coming here."

"Yeah?" Bobby kindled. "Is it good?"

"One of his best," Mr. Brautigan -- Ted -- replied. He looked sideways at Bobby, one eye open, the other still squinted shut against the smoke. It gave him a look that was at once wise and mysterious, like a not-quite-trustworthy character in a detective movie. "But are you sure you can read this? You can't be much more than twelve."

"I'm eleven," Bobby said. He was delighted that Ted thought he might be as old as twelve. "Eleven today. I can read it. I won't be able to understand it all, but if it's a good story, I'll like it."

"Your birthday!" Ted said, looking impressed. He took a final drag on his cigarette, then flicked it away. It hit the cement walk and fountained sparks. "Happy birthday dear Robert, happy birthday to you!"

"Thanks. Only I like Bobby a lot better."

"Bobby, then. Are you going out to celebrate?"

"Nah, my mom's got to work late."

"Would you like to come up to my little place? I don't have much, but I know how to open a can. Also, I might have a pastry -- "

"Thanks, but Mom left me some stuff. I should eat that."

"I understand." And, wonder of wonders, he looked as if he actually did. Ted returned Bobby's copy of Ring Around the Sun. "In this book," he said, "Mr. Simak postulates the idea that there are a number of worlds like ours. Not other planets but other Earths, parallel Earths, in a kind of ring around the sun. A fascinating idea."

"Yeah," Bobby said. He knew about parallel worlds from other books. From the comics, as well.

Ted Brautigan was now looking at him in a thoughtful, speculative way.

"What?" Bobby asked, feeling suddenly self-conscious. See something green? his mother might have said.

For a moment he thought Ted wasn't going to answer -- he seemed to have fallen into some deep and dazing train of thought. Then he gave himself a little shake and sat up straighter. "Nothing," he said. "I have a little idea. Perhaps you'd like to earn some extra money? Not that I have much, but -- "

"Yeah! Cripes, yeah!" There's this bike, he almost went on, then stopped himself. Best keep yourself to yourself was yet another of his mom's sayings. "I'd do just about anything you wanted!"

Ted Brautigan looked simultaneously alarmed and amused. It seemed to open a door to a different face, somehow, and Bobby could see that, yeah, the old guy had once been a young guy. One with a little sass to him, maybe. "That's a bad thing to tell a stranger," he said, "and although we've progressed to Bobby and Ted -- a good start -- we're still really strangers to each other."

"Did either of those Johnson guys say anything about strangers?"

"Not that I recall, but here's something on the subject from the Bible: 'For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner. Spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence...'" Ted trailed off for a moment. The fun had gone out of his face and he looked old again. Then his voice firmed and he finished. "'...before I go hence, and be no more.' Book of Psalms. I can't remember which one."

"Well," Bobby said, "I wouldn't kill or rob anyone, don't worry, but I'd sure like to earn some money."

"Let me think," Ted said. "Let me think a little."

"Sure. But if you've got chores or something, I'm your guy. Tell you that right now."

"Chores? Maybe. Although that's not the word I would have chosen." Ted clasped his bony arms around his even bonier knees and gazed across the lawn at Broad Street. It was growing dark now; Bobby's favorite part of the evening had arrived. The cars that passed had their parking lights on, and from somewhere on Asher Avenue Mrs. Sigsby was calling for her twins to come in and get their supper. At this time of day -- and at dawn, as he stood in the bathroom, urinating into the bowl with sunshine falling through the little window and into his half-open eyes -- Bobby felt like a dream in someone else's head.

"Where did you live before you came here, Mr....Ted?"

"A place that wasn't as nice," he said. "Nowhere near as nice. How long have you lived here, Bobby?"

"Long as I can remember. Since my dad died, when I was three."

"And you know everyone on the street? On this block of the street, anyway?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

"You'd know strangers. Sojourners. Faces of those unknown."

Bobby smiled and nodded. "Uh-huh, I think so."

He waited to see where this would lead next -- it was interesting -- but apparently this was as far as it went. Ted stood up, slowly and carefully. Bobby could hear little bones creak in his back when he put his hands around there and stretched, grimacing.

"Come on," he said. "It's getting chilly. I'll go in with you. Your key or mine?"

Bobby smiled. "You better start breaking in your own, don't you think?"

Ted -- it was getting easier to think of him as Ted -- pulled a keyring from his pocket. The only keys on it were the one which opened the big front door and the one to his room. Both were shiny and new, the color of bandit gold. Bobby's own two keys were scratched and dull. How old was Ted? he wondered again. Sixty, at least. A sixty-year-old man with only two keys in his pocket. That was weird.

Ted opened the front door and they went into the big dark foyer with its umbrella stand and its old painting of Lewis and Clark looking out across the American West. Bobby went to the door of the Garfield apartment and Ted went to the stairs. He paused there for a moment with his hand on the bannister. "The Simak book is a great story," he said. "Not such great writing, though. Not bad, I don't mean to say that, but take it from me, there is better."

Bobby waited.

"There are also books full of great writing that don't have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don't be like the book-snobs who won't do that. Read sometimes for the words -- the language. Don't be like the play-it-safers that won't do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book."

"Are there many of those, do you think?" Bobby asked.

"More than the book-snobs and play-it-safers think. Many more. Perhaps I'll give you one. A belated birthday present."

"You don't have to do that."

"No, but perhaps I will. And do have a happy birthday."

"Thanks. It's been a great one." Then Bobby went into the apartment, heated up the stew (remembering to turn off the gas-ring after the stew started to bubble, also remembering to put the pan in the sink to soak), and ate supper by himself, reading Ring Around the Sun with the TV on for company. He hardly heard Chet Huntley and David Brinkley gabbling the evening news. Ted was right about the book; it was a corker. The words seemed okay to him, too, although he supposed he didn't have a lot of experience just yet.

I'd like to write a story like this, he thought as he finally closed the book and flopped down on the couch to watch Sugarfoot. I wonder if I ever could.

Maybe. Maybe so. Someone had to write stories, after all, just like someone had to fix the pipes when they froze or change the streetlights in Commonwealth Park when they burned out.

An hour or so later, after Bobby had picked up Ring Around the Sun and begun reading again, his mother came in. Her lipstick was a bit smeared at one corner of her mouth and her slip was hanging a little. Bobby thought of pointing this out to her, then remembered how much she disliked it when someone told her it was "snowing down south." Besides, what did it matter? Her working day was over and, as she sometimes said, there was no one here but us chickens.

She checked the fridge to make sure the leftover stew was gone, checked the stove to make sure the gas-ring was off, checked the sink to make sure the pot and the Tupperware storage container were both soaking in soapy water. Then she kissed him on the temple, just a brush in passing, and went into her bedroom to change out of her office dress and hose. She seemed distant, preoccupied. She didn't ask if he'd had a happy birthday.

Later on he showed her Carol's card. His mom glanced at it, not really seeing it, pronounced it "cute," and handed it back. Then she told him to wash up, brush up, and go to bed. Bobby did so, not mentioning his interesting talk with Ted. In her current mood, that was apt to make her angry. The best thing was to let her be distant, let her keep to herself as long as she needed to, give her time to drift back to him. Yet he felt that sad mood settling over him again as he finished brushing his teeth and climbed into bed. Sometimes he felt almost hungry for her, and she didn't know.

He reached out of bed and closed the door, blocking off the sound of some old movie. He turned off the light. And then, just as he was starting to drift off, she came in, sat on the side of his bed, and said she was sorry she'd been so stand-offy tonight, but there had been a lot going on at the office and she was tired. Sometimes it was a madhouse, she said. She stroked a finger across his forehead and then kissed him there, making him shiver. He sat up and hugged her. She stiffened momentarily at his touch, then gave in to it. She even hugged him back briefly. He thought maybe it would now be all right to tell her about Ted. A little, anyway.

"I talked with Mr. Brautigan when I came home from the library," he said.

"Who?"

"The new man on the third floor. He asked me to call him Ted."

"You won't -- I should say nitzy! You don't know him from Adam."

"He said giving a kid an adult library card was a great present." Ted had said no such thing, but Bobby had lived with his mother long enough to know what worked and what didn't.

She relaxed a little. "Did he say where he came from?"

"A place not as nice as here, I think he said."

"Well, that doesn't tell us much, does it?" Bobby was still hugging her. He could have hugged her for another hour easily, smelling her White Rain shampoo and Aqua Net hold-spray and the pleasant odor of tobacco on her breath, but she disengaged from him and laid him back down. "I guess if he's going to be your friend -- your adult friend -- I'll have to get to know him a little."

"Well -- "

"Maybe I'll like him better when he doesn't have shopping bags scattered all over the lawn." For Liz Garfield this was downright placatory, and Bobby was satisfied. The day had come to a very acceptable ending after all. "Goodnight, birthday boy."

"Goodnight, Mom."

She went out and closed the door. Later that night -- much later -- he thought he heard her crying in her room, but perhaps that was only a dream.

Copyright © 1999 by Stephen King

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