Oliver is going to be a paleontologist one day, but Mrs. D. doesn’t believe it. Oliver talks to her about the dinosaur fossils that are still being discovered all over the world by scientists who spend their days with their boots in the dirt and heads bent over clumps of sand as they try to excavate, as they try to figure out which species came to be first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and on to infinity. Oliver is waiting for his chance to tell Mrs. D. about trace fossils and maybe about the differences between archaeology and paleontology. He thinks that probably, she will be pleased with all that he has learned from two hours of watching The Discovery Channel when he could have been playing Donkey Kong. Instead, she is just concerned.
Mrs. D. takes a few steps back the way she usually does before she tells Oliver to go off and play with the other kids. Oliver gets jittery in his knees and bouncy in his stomach. He twiddles his fingers, and then suddenly, he has an idea. “Your hair is like a snow-capped mountain,” he tells her, “only white at its very peak.” He is about to tell her about this documentary he didn’t finish watching about men who climb mountains all around the world, and he wonders if she will smile and call him sweet, but instead, her eyes open wide like she has just spotted a fly on the wall that she would like to swat, and she tells him that is no way to talk to a lady. She’ll be sending a note home to his mother again today.
“Dear Mrs. Kelly, Your son has trouble initiating polite and coherent conversations. At the Ross School, we strive to foster a warm and nurturing environment for all students, especially children in the lower school. As a teacher, I can only do so much to promote positive social development— the rest of the job must be done in the home. I ask that you and your husband work with Oliver on conducting himself appropriately when he interacts with others.”
Mrs. D. tells Oliver not to read the note. It’s for his mother. No one else. He puts it in his backpack and doesn’t even try to open it during the day, although he is very curious. He wonders if she has heard when the other kids call him “freak,” and “dinosaur nerd,” and “wussy,” and if she has, he wonders if she has sent notes back to their parents too.
If only the note were addressed to Dad, tonight would be much simpler. Dad comes to pick Oliver up in his old white car with the red interior. The windows are down, the busted muffler is rumbling as the Dirt Mobile fumbles along, and on the radio, “How to Disappear Completely” is playing. Dad understands the importance of setting aside a few minutes to unwind.
With the wind blowing through his partially gray hair, Dad asks, “How was your day, Champ?”
“I got a note from Mrs. D.”
“I thought we had a talk about this just last week.”
“I know, Dad. I’m sorry.”
“What’s eating her this time?”
“I wanted to let her know that the white part of her hair is beautiful, like snow on top of a mountain.”
“Mrs. D? You wanted to call her beautiful?” They both laugh with ugly mouths wide open because Mrs. D. is old and chubby. She walks like a penguin in her skin-colored pantyhose and everyone knows that she is the meanest teacher in the second grade, maybe even in the entire school.
“There were only a few minutes of recess left, and I didn’t have time to find anyone to play with, and none of the kids in my class like to talk about documentaries or dinosaurs, or to me unless they’re laughing. I couldn’t think of anything to say so I … ”
“Oli, if you don’t know the right thing to say to a woman — take my word on this — you should compliment her on her purse or on her shoes. Maybe when you’re older, you can start complimenting smiles.”
“Dad, will you tell Mom that I didn’t mean to say anything bad?”
“I wasn’t planning to rat on you, pal.”
“But Mrs. D. wrote the note to her, not even you.”
Dad shakes his head and keeps his eyes on the road, mainly straight ahead. He isn’t trying to weave in and out of the cars as much as he usually would, but even now, he is making a giant zigzag path homeward.
Today, Dad isn’t swerving as much as he usually does, but he is pulled over anyway, in part because he was speeding, in part because he still drives the Dirt Mobile even though he is almost two decades removed from his twenties, and in part because he has become something of a mythic giant among the local highway patrol who know that he always breaks between one and seven driving laws, but are rarely able to catch him in the act.
“Good day, Oliver,” Officer Sherman pauses to adjust his belt, “Good day, Mr. Kelly.”
“Afternoon, Sherman. What can I do for you today, sir?” the words come out almost sing-songy through Dad’s big white teeth.
“Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”
“Can’t say that I do. I figure you’re about to clue me in.”
“97 miles an hour. Did you feel that, son?” Officer Sherman says to Oliver, even though Oliver is not his son.
Oliver says nothing and starts to hum a little to himself. He imagines this as one of the natural obstacles that arise on a journey homeward. He waits for his father to take care of it, to talk his way out of it like he always does, to put to practice the magical powers he has as driver of the Dirt Mobile.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you know, Sue has been out of sorts about the whole mess lately, and I wanted to be back in time to get dinner ready and record the episode of Oprah for her. We don’t have very much time.”
Officer Sherman sucks his teeth and says, “You’ve got to be careful, Fred. I don’t make the laws. The laws aren’t just about me. They’re about everyone. They’re about the kids. You’re doing almost 100 miles an hour, and Oli is sitting here singing to himself like he’s scared or doesn’t understand a damned thing.”
“I’m sorry, really I am. It won’t happen again.”
Officer Sherman nods his head and steps away. Oliver and Dad start to disappear completely.
Dad says, “Go west young man. Go west.”
For the next few minutes, they go on driving in silence, but as they get closer to the house, Dad says, “Champ, this is going to be our little secret. I won’t tell on you; you won’t tell on me.”
“Dad, you already said you wouldn’t tell on me. You said you’d never rat on me.”
“I’m counting on you not to rat on me either. Us buddies have to stick together.”
Dad parks the Dirt Mobile in front of the house. He checks the mailbox to find that the mail has already been taken inside.
“Are you really recording Oprah? Since when does Mom watch Oprah? Since when does she let you cook dinner?”
“Easy does it, Champ,” Dad says, which is not even a real answer. They enter the house and are greeted by Rachel, Oli’s older sister who, as of recently, is blonde, and as of very recently, the possessor of a pierced nose.
“That’s a good look for you, Scout,” Dad says. No one can tell if he is joking.
Rachel gets huffy and says, “They said I can’t go back to school until I take it out. So I’m not going back to school.”
“At least stay in until the end of May. I’ve already paid the full $15,000 for the year, and I’d like to think we’re all getting our money’s worth.”
“Geez, Dad. Who ever asked you to put me in a fucking private school?”
“What is with your ’tude?” Dad asks. Mom says it’s hard to take him seriously when he still talks the way he did in college.
Rachel races upstairs. She doesn’t even say hi to Oliver, which he thinks might not be too bad, because at least she didn’t call him a dinosaur freak. With his hand on Oli’s shoulder, Dad says, “Don’t ever turn thirteen on me, Champ.”
Dinner isn’t cooked and Oprah hasn’t been recorded. Probably this is what “easy does it” was supposed to mean.
Mom gets back from work, and brings Belinda with her; Mom picks her up from nursery school where she spends her days coloring, learning letters of the alphabet, and napping. Belinda is the youngest of the Kelly children, and the only one who isn’t getting herself into trouble yet. There are three Kelly children, but Mom likes to say that she is raising four. She doesn’t think Dad counts as a grown-up. Probably no one thinks that Dad counts as a grown-up. Mom looks tired, like someone who has just come back from lecturing sleepy twenty-year-olds on books of the Odyssey it seems they haven’t read, which Mom tells us, they claim is because they’re burned out. Mom takes Belinda’s hair out of its high ponytail, and as she runs her fingers through Belinda’s hair, she says, “I wish my students knew that there is always work, and as you get older, the way work is to be handled becomes decidedly unclear.” Belinda keeps her head tilted back. Her eyes are closed, and she is smiling widely as the Cheshire Cat. When Mom is done, she purrs and says, “I’m pretty. I’m pretty. I’m pretty,” until Dad says, “Yes, you are, kiddo. But don’t forget, you’ve got to be smart too.”
Rachel is still in her room. She doesn’t bother to come downstairs to say hello. She never does these days. Oliver is stretched out on the couch and watching television. A seven-year-old recovering from a hard day at school. Can you imagine? Sue Kelly wastes no time putting the men of the house in their place.
“Fred, how much work did you get done on your haunts of New England piece?”
“I’m working on it, babe.”
“You always say you’re ‘working’ on it.”
“That’s because I always am.”
“It’s a wonder they keep you on their payroll. That’s the Needham paper for you.”
Oliver wonders if this would be a good time to step in, to hand Mom the note so that she will stop bugging Dad and so that he can get his punishment over with. Before he does, Mom moves on to him. She’s always just a step ahead.
“What is he doing right now?” Mom asks Dad, but she’s looking at Oliver.
“He’s just watching some cartoons, Sue.”
“Mom, I’m only watching Arthur.” The loveable aardvark is in his jillionth season of re-runs on PBS, but Oliver is much too young to realize this.
“He worships before the altar of television,” Mom says. She spends far too much time thinking in terms of her ancient Greeks and their gods.
“I got a note from Mrs. D. today,” Oliver says.
“Again? Are you kidding me? If I have to read another note by that woman telling me how to raise my son … What the hell did you do this time?”
Oliver hands her the note. She reads it.
“This woman is writing about ‘promoting positive social development.’ Oliver, what the hell?” Oliver can tell by the sound of Mom’s voice that this is going to be just like the fish-flushing incident; she will be very mad, and it might even take three or four whole days for her to forgive him.
“I told her I want to be a paleontologist. I was telling her about all the cool fossils, just like they showed on The Discovery Channel, and then I could tell she was getting bored, just like you taught me to perceive, so I changed the topic. And I told her that her hair was beautiful, just like snow on a mountain, and all of a sudden, her eyes got big like I was a fly she wanted to smash, and that was it. She wrote this note and told me to give it to you. She said I couldn’t read it, so I didn’t even peek.”
Mom gets quiet and walks away, which she does when she wants to keep herself from saying anything too mean. Dad has already explained to Oliver that Mom is one of those people who sometimes needs to do this, because she is prone to saying things that are too hurtful to be fixed by saying sorry.
The Kellys eat dinner separately that night, which is Chinese takeout because Fred is not eager to start another fight over his ever inadequate macaroni and cheese dish served with frankfurters on the side, nor is he stupid enough to ask Sue if she plans to cook.
Rachel says she isn’t hungry. She doesn’t plan to leave her room. Sue takes the wonton soup to the kitchen, where she decides she will eat her meal in peace with Belinda. She will tell her stories as they drink broth in spoonfuls; she will wipe Belinda’s face with her napkin if there is a spill. Fred and Oliver are left to dip their egg rolls in sweet sauce from their comfy spaces on the couch in front of the television.
“This is the life, Champ,” Dad says. That his happiest moment of the day is sitting before the television is not very promising.
“Dad, are you going to work on your story tonight?”
“Oh no. Not you too!”
“Geez, Oli. Don’t apologize. I’ll get around to the article. I always do. I don’t need you to worry about that.”
In his head, Oliver begins to plan an adventure for the next morning.
Night couldn’t come any slower than it does. The process of waiting is as painful as trying to count up to one hundred fireflies in mid-August, and realizing that although it is very possible, it will not be easy. Oliver thinks of carefree summers spent on the cape when Mom is less stressed because she is not grading mountain-high stacks of poorly cited papers by undergrads, and Dad is less stressed because Mom is not getting on his case. But summer is too far away, and it’s been so long since Mom reached out for a lightning bug dying on the pool’s chlorinated surface to begin its funeral ritual: “Your light will never shine again, but you will always be a lightning bug.” The summer is too far away, and even when it is here, it is much too temporary.
Despite the October chill, the house feels stuffy. Stuffy, as Oliver has decided, with the tightness that comes when too many adults are living under the same roof. As he’s learned by watching The Maury Show, which Mom hates, when there are two men living in the same house, there can never be peace, and Dad was the one who was bringing in a salary. Besides, with Rachel and her piercing, Mom and her nagging, Dad and his Dirt Mobile, and Oliver and his impolite conversations, it’s a wonder the place hadn’t exploded weeks ago.
Dad starts his mad typing after dinner, and gives his fingers and his mind a rest when it’s time to put Belinda to sleep. He reads her a bedtime story and in no time, she’s completely out. Oliver doubts she even waited to hear the ending, but Dad doesn’t seem to mind much; no one ever seems to mind the things Belinda does much because she is four, which, as Rachel says, means that no one expects her to know better. Leaving Belinda in her room to spend the night, Dad goes back to his room, and within the next ten minutes, he’s off to bed himself, and his snoring can be heard from down the hall.
Mom goes to bed about a half hour after Dad, but she gets up now and then to pee, which is very annoying, but not her fault because she has an overactive bladder, which Dad explained the time they drove to Florida and had to stop every thirty minutes. All this happens as expected.
Rachel, however, presents an unexpected obstacle. She is not even trying to fall asleep. At midnight, the light in her room is still on, and Oliver can hear that she is talking to someone on the phone, probably Esther, because that is just about her only friend.
Most of Rachel’s sentences begin with “It’s just that,” or “I feel that.” She says that she cannot look in the mirror without feeling a sad hatred that makes her want to break it. Aunt Nelly says it sounds like Rachel’s come straight from the Valley, which Oliver thought was an insult until his parents started laughing, which is when he realized it was probably one of those jokes he wouldn’t understand until he was older.
Oliver waits outside Rachel’s room for about an hour. Then, at last, comes the long-awaited click of the phone going back into its receiver. Rachel is silent and the room is dark. A few muffled sniffles followed, and then Rachel begins to cry loudly. Oliver knows he can’t go in, but he wished that he could sit on her floor with his arms wrapped around his knees while he told her that everything would be fine, and maybe she would laugh at him or call him crazy, but he wouldn’t even mind. But he can’t ruin the plan this way, so he doesn’t. He stays outside until the last sniffle comes, and then goes about his business, finding a flashlight and batteries, getting his beach pail and shovel and a blanket, putting away snacks, and some money, all to be stowed away in his little red backpack. When all of this is ready, Oliver goes to his bed, maybe for the last time, and gets the few hours of rest he will need to prepare for his big day.
In the morning, Oliver gets up even before the sun and slips a note under Rachel’s door that says: I want to let you know that I think you are almost beautiful —O, because he knows that this is a thing she worries about a lot.
Oliver slings his backpack over his shoulder, and then he’s off. It’s a lazy Saturday, or at least it should be. All Saturdays are lazy, but children do not always know this. Oliver certainly does not know this. He is ready for his long journey west, which is the direction he will have to travel for a very long time in order to reach Utah, which is the state that has the only museum in the entire world that presents the entire history of all known species of dinosaurs. He has not told Mom about this idea, but if he did, he is sure that she would say, “Take breaths between your sentences, Oliver. You need to slow down every and now and then.” Mom is not very positive about anything. In fact, the first time Oliver told her that he wanted to be a paleontologist, she said, “Honey, that’s not a real job,” but in his defense, Dad said, “Sue, you have to let the kid dream,” which also didn’t sound all too promising.
Oliver doesn’t want to call Dad his favorite parent, but he’s definitely the nicer one. Around Dad, Oliver can say that the D in Mrs. D. must stand for devil, and Dad will laugh and not chastise him, even though he will say, “You can say that around me, but don’t repeat it at school.” Dad is cool like that. Dad also has some funny sayings of his own, like “Go west young man,” which Dad explained is an old American saying that had to do with the expanding nation, although he uses it when traffic is bad and he decides to shift over to the lane all the way to the left, even though it’s probably almost definitely illegal.
As he leaves the house and walks towards the Needham Bridge, Oliver repeats, “Go west young man. Go west.” He is taking a piece of Dad with him as he makes his way out into the world.
For someone who is on a journey, it is important to know how to accept help from the right strangers. Or at least, that is what Oliver thinks he has learned from Mom’s stories about Odysseus’ journey. When you are traveling for a very long time, you will come in contact with many new people and places, and some will be very bad, and some might be surprisingly good, but the one thing you can be sure of is that the encounters will be interesting.
A man is running shirtless with the first rays of the morning sun warming his body and illuminating his face. Oliver looks at the man’s fancy green sneakers and the way he’s heaving in and out as he struggles to move his body forward on the street. The man runs past Oliver with his eyes almost closed, as if he is in too much pain to open them. This is Oliver’s first stranger, and he knows he will get nothing from this interaction. This will not be a good surprise, nor will it be a bad one. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all is that most encounters change nothing. Oliver finds this with the bikers he passes too, and with the woman who walks her dog down the street in a bathrobe, pajama pants, and slippers. She looks like a mother. She wears her hair up with a clip. Not even she stops Oliver to ask where he is going. It seems she doesn’t really see him.
Another surprise, Oliver finds, is that being perceived as invisible can be exhausting, or perhaps, at this point, it is just the walking. He takes deep breaths in and out of his mouth, like he did after he swam an entire lap in the big hotel pool without lifting his head once. He will be at the Needham Bridge soon, and on the side built for walkers, there is a big bench where he will be able to stretch out and take a nap under the sun.
It’s still a lazy Saturday, and although the sun is out, most people are still sleeping in their beds, or lying motionless and wake-dreaming under covers, or sipping coffee in sweats or pajamas. The Needham Bridge, nearly empty, looks infinite. Needham is a sleepy town in Massachusetts, perhaps the sleepiest in all of New England, and its boundaries are rarely crossed. There are dreams enough for almost everyone within, and so the families do not travel unless it’s a holiday or time for summer vacation, and the college students stay on their campus and experiment with powder and liquid magic of their own between lectures and readings, and the children grow up with an incredible inclination towards reclining, and an ever present need to find a place to unwind.
On this morning, sleepy as all the others, dream-like as any Saturday, Oliver walks on the walking side of Needham Bridge, and clenches his fist as he makes his way to the bench, and then he sees a wondrous thing. A woman with long white hair is standing on the bridge’s railing. She keeps her arms stretched out; her hands are firmly clasped around the suspension cables. The water, 300 feet below, is cool, steel-tinged blue, and through the splashing music of its waves, it is singing. The woman looks like she is dancing with a scarf hanging loosely around her neck, and two different dresses on at the same time, like she couldn’t decide between them.
Oliver walks up to the woman and asks, “What are you doing, ma’am?”
She looks at him and takes a deep breath. She says softly, “I’m testing the bridge, son.” She comes down, one careful step at a time, hands becoming unclenched as she steps down, and walks over to the bench. She is a stranger, but not a dangerous one.
“My name’s not ‘Son.’ It’s Oliver.”
“Nice to meet you, Oliver. You look very tired.” She sits down.
“I’ve been walking for a long time.” Like a child under trance, Oliver sits down.
“Me too,” she says. She pauses a moment and asks, “What are you doing here all by yourself?”
“I’m going to the dinosaur museum in Utah.”
“That’s a long way from Massachusetts. Do your parents know?”
“I can’t tell them.”
“They’re probably expecting you home soon. You should go back. I bet they miss you. ”
“I can’t go home. I can’t stay there anymore.”
“Is it really so terrible?”
“I can’t stay at home anymore.” Oliver has found that when you are very young and do not answer a question, people sometimes assume you have not yet learned how.
“What made you decide to come here?”
Oliver and the woman sit silently for a moment. Feeling hungry, Oliver pulls a tin of cookies out from his backpack. He takes one and extends the open can to the woman. She picks a chocolate chip cookie, and after the first bite, she says “thanks.”
“Do you come here a lot?” Oliver asks the woman.
“Yes,” she says.
“Why do you come?”
“It’s just about the only place where I can think.” She’s looking straight ahead, at the gray ocean water or at the sky. It’s impossible to tell which. Both start so close and extend so very far out into nowhere, far out into everywhere even. “William always used to say this was a beautiful bridge. The most beautiful damned sleeping bridge he’d ever seen.” She nods her head like she’s agreeing with someone, even though she is the one who has just spoken. Perhaps she is agreeing with William, as if his words must be affirmed again and again and again, as if repeating his words is not enough affirmation in itself.
Oliver doesn’t know who William is, but he decides it’s probably best not to ask; something about the woman’s gaze suggests that her William is also beautiful and sleeping. “You haven’t told me your name,” Oliver points out to her.
“Rose,” she says.
Oliver jumps back a little. She’s Rose. Of course she’s Rose. He should have known. He’s heard about her before, the old woman who goes to the park at night and sings to herself on the swing while crying. He’s heard that she walks around wearing things you’d expect to see at the circus, but on her, for some reason, the layering of dresses seems lovely. Still, he knows better than to call her attention to these matters. He’s learned something from Mrs. Devil after all. Oliver pulls himself together and says, “It’s good to meet you, Rose.”
“Nice to meet you, Oliver.” Nice to meet you, Oliver. Again and again and again. People always tell Oliver that it’s nice to meet him, people who smile at first, and then, within a few days, show that they do not want to be his friend.
Oliver puts a hand on his stomach. Mom has told him not to do this, but she’s not around, so he does it anyway. He rubs his stomach which is rumbling already as if it anticipates the hunger that the journey ahead has in store.
Rose doesn’t wait to offer Oliver real food. She asks, “Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
“No, but you don’t have to…”
“I want to. Listen, I’ll have to take you home soon, but not right away. For now we can go to my house and I’ll make you pancakes and for a few hours, we can talk about whatever. Does that sound good?”
“I have to learn to be on my own,” Oliver says.
“Sweetie, no one should have to learn to be alone.”
Oliver stands and follows Rose’s lead. She is just as unusual as they say, more like a character from under the rabbit hole than anyone he had ever met in his entire life.
“I have to warn you: it’s a long walk,” Rose says.
Go west young man. Go west.
Rose’s house is not much like the other houses in Needham. Hers has a front porch painted pink and more wind chimes and birdhouses than Oliver has ever seen in one place. It’s a big and funny house, something like a life-sized version of Belinda’s dollhouse. It seems like it has been decorated by a gnome who thinks himself to be a secret prince.
When they step inside, Rose says, “I’ve lived in this town my entire adult life.” The walls are decorated with pages of letters.
“How did you figure out that you were an adult?” Oliver asks her. His aunt has a theory that we are always children to some extent.
“I got married. My husband and I moved into our own house. We had children of our own. I was the one they meant when they said ‘Mommy.’ That’s how I knew I had grown up.”
Oliver and Rose were walking through the house quickly. For an old woman, Rose is very fast. Oliver thinks she has to be about the same age as his grandma, but when Rose walks, well, when she walks, if you are looking from behind and mistake her white hair for platinum, you would think that she is very young, because she does not wobble, not even a little bit, and her back is perfectly straight, and her waist is as small as a child’s.
“How many kids do you have?” Oliver asks.
“I had two. A boy who couldn’t get enough of books and a girl who couldn’t get enough of boys. That was a long time ago. They’re both over forty now. We don’t see each other very much.”
“How often is not very much?”
“Christmas. Thanksgiving sometimes. But they don’t come to visit me. They come to practice remembering, and to give their children things to remember.” Rose says this last bit with her head to the side, but not in Oliver’s direction. It is as if she is speaking to someone who is not there.
Oliver says, “I see,” although he is not sure that he does.
They pass by the kitchen on their way up, and Rose asks Oliver if he’d like anything to drink before she shows him the rest of the house. Water? Milk? Tea? He tells her he’ll be fine, and thanks her very much. He can wait for the meal she will soon prepare. Paleontologists have to be good at waiting.
Rose leads Oliver to the room that used to belong to her son. He’s never cleared out his old stuff, she tells him, which is a good thing probably, because it’s never easy to step into an empty room, an empty room that seems like it belongs to no one, but might be occupied by ghosts. Ghosts of New England, as Oliver is all too aware from his father’s latest project, are all too common, even though they are not frequently discussed.
Even though he’s never cleared out his stuff, Bill’s old room seems to have little other than books in it, although there are plenty of these. There are novels, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and books of poetry. “But they’re all books of poetry, in some sense,” Oliver’s older cousin had said when he was trying to teach him about all the different types of books that exist.
For now, Oliver is thankful that they will not be staying in Bill’s room for too long, even though the space in the room is not so much that it is frightening. Oliver needs to leave this room because it reminds him of where he is expected to be, and he worries that Belinda will not remember him, and that Mom and Dad will not realize he has made his very own grown-up choice, and that Rachel will continue to cry herself to sleep and that no one will know. Most of all, he is worried that the journey ahead will be even longer than he thought, and as he knows from Mom’s stories, the journey back is never easy, and by the time the protagonist returns, it is usually too late.
“Oliver. Ohhh-li-ver,” Rose says, as she tries to break the child from his trance.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I’m going to fix us some pancakes. How would you like that?”
“With chocolate chips?”
“Have you ever tried them with chocolate chips and bananas?”
“That sounds great.”
“My kids used to love banana and chocolate chip pancakes,” Rose says, and looking off to her side again, she adds in, as if these are half-forgotten words to an old song, “It’s probably the one thing we’d all agree I did right.”
“Do you really think you were a bad parent?”
“I wasn’t the best.”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”
“Oliver, I am only being honest.”
Rose sings to herself, and for a moment, she holds up the spatula like it’s a microphone.
The pancakes come out looking picture-perfect. Rose serves them on city-themed plates. The theme to Oliver’s plate is London. There is a sad Big Ben on it, perhaps a very lonely Big Ben who is tired of people staring. Rose explains, “From behind Big Ben, the London Eye is watching.” For Rose, it’s Paris. The Eiffel Tower has a moustache and beret. She says, “The Eiffel Tower is guarding an entire city of people eating baguettes and fromage, people living in pretty apartments au bord de la Seine. See, I remember things every now and then.” She is quite proud of herself for not forgetting these few words of French that she learned from a novel she read long ago.
“Now you’ll let me know if you don’t like these pancakes, or if you think you’d prefer them without the bananas, because then I’ll know for next time, and we’ll both enjoy them that much more. Understood?” Rose asks like she doesn’t realize this is it. There will not be a next time.
“They’re yummy just like this.”
Rose and Oliver stop talking for a few minutes, probably because, with the pancakes in front of them, it is hard to think of anything but the melted chocolate chips and sweet slices of banana, and how warm it is in their mouths. Oliver concentrates on how perfect it feels when he washes the food down with milk.
Rose’s eyes look glazed over and dreamy. She takes slow sips from her mug, a mug that is filled with tea, warm with milk, honey, and cinnamon. When she’s done, her eyes open wide like she has just woken up.
“Oliver, what do you dream about?”
“I dream of Mom, Dad, and Belinda, never my older sister, Mrs. D, the kids in my class, cars, movies, and falling down the stairs in my house.”
I dream of my parents, too. Sometimes, I am old in my dreams, the way I am now, and my parents are still young and bright. I dreamt of my husband only once, a very long time ago, before we were even married.”
“Is that how you knew that you loved him?”
“Oh no, I knew that long before. The dream didn’t teach me how I felt about him, but how I would feel about myself after he was gone.”
“What happened in the dream?”
“We were skating on the frozen pond, just the two of us, the way we always did when we were children. And then the ice started to break. It started out with a single crack just in the center, and William told me to get off. He was going to follow right behind me. I was almost at the edge when the ice broke beneath William’s feet, when he fell right in, and I had no choice but to leave him, because the ice was breaking into so many little pieces that I didn’t stand a chance.”
“He died in your dream?”
“He did. I woke up crying so much anyone who saw would have thought it had all been real. And then I knew that life without him would be devastating, that I could never be happy again without him.”
“You’ve never been happy without him?”
“It doesn’t feel the same.”
“It’s not your fault. But Oliver, I think we’ve had enough sad talk for one morning. What would you like to do today?”
“We can go to the beach.”
“Silly, it’s not warm enough.”
“Can you take me to see the dinosaur fossils?”
“I can take you to the zoo.”
Rose has an electric blue car with pictures of her grandchildren taped along the dashboard and to the ceiling. She and Oliver listen to the radio and she sings along every now and then, getting all the words right each time she does.
Oliver looks at Rose and says, “I want to be a paleontologist.”
She keeps her eyes on the road, hands positioned carefully on the steering wheel, and says, “It’s good to have a plan for the future, Oliver, but sometimes, it’s best not to plan out the future too carefully. That way, you keep yourself open to possibilities, and possibility is a beautiful thing.”
“Are you just saying that so I will change my mind about wanting to become a paleontologist?” Oliver asks. He knows that when adults talk about the future being open-ended, what they often have in mind is another question that many of them ask next: “Don’t you want to be a doctor or a lawyer instead?”
Rose laughs and shakes her head. “No, I just want you to realize that you’re young, and that you still have so much time to decide, and even when you’re older, you don’t really have to decide on anything permanently. You can always change.”
Oliver has an idea. “Today is a good day for change,” he tells Rose, and then he tells her his idea, which is that they can play a very long game of pretend, a game that only ends when someone makes the mistake of using the other person’s real name or saying something out of character.
“Agent Kelly, our mission is to rescue Buzz, the world’s most intelligent living mammal. This mammal is the closest living relative of the now extinct dinosaurs. It was genetically engineered to run faster than any member of its species, to live longer than any mammal before it, to survive temperatures below absolute zero and well above the boiling point. Last week, enemy forces broke into the lab and took Buzz with them.” Rose has no trouble starting them off on their game of pretend.
“Those bastards,” Oliver says.
“Agent Kelly, watch your language. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Oliver says.
Rose corrects Oliver, “That’s Agent Howard to you.”
“Yes, Agent Howard.”
“Good.” Rose gives a half-smile.
“Agent Howard, what do we know about these enemy forces?”
“We believe that Zitron is behind this. Zitron started in the late 1990s as a group for people with bad memory. It was a support group at first, but then Nate Banks stepped forward as the leader, and decided to rebel against the federal government and its spending,” Rose says.
“So they targeted the oldest project on Earth?” Oliver asks.
“Among others, but the dinosaur project seemed to become a target because dinosaurs had exceptional memories, and because members of Zitron were angry that the government began to genetically engineer these super dinosaurs before looking for a way to treat bad memories in humans.”
“We have a mission and a motive and a target. Now all we need to do is save the mammal.” It’s only a game, but Oliver feels so determined.
“Exactly,” Rose says.
“Agent Howard, we’re going to have to choose special codenames so we seem just like everyone else. No one can know that we’re here on a mission.”
“We’ll go around as grandmother and grandson.”
At the zoo there are peacocks and flamingos, leopards, eagles, armadillos, reindeer and snakes, ladybugs and sheep, but there isn’t a dinosaur-like mammal in sight. Agent Howard and Agent Kelly separate for a little while. She sits on the bench and Agent Kelly goes to feed the goats to blend in with the other kids.
Two girls in matching dresses reach out their hands to feed the goat. They reach out their arms and say “Here, goat” as they force their hands under the animal’s mouth.
“Maybe the goat has had enough to eat,” Oliver says to the girls.
“Oh yeah, and who are you?” the older one asks.
“I’m Oliver Mitch Kelly,” he says.
“Oh, I’ve heard about you. You’re the dinosaur freak,” the younger girl says.
“I am not a freak.”
“Are too. Everyone is always talking about you, freckle face, and how you don’t have any friends.”
“I have friends,” Oliver shouts. He knows he needs to race right out of there. There is a heaviness that comes into his stomach, and he feels like he is about to puke. He can’t cry in front of the girls. He needs to find Rose. He needs to tell her: Agent Howard, we have reason to believe the enemy forces are on the run. We must get in the car and go back to the headquarters to adjust the plan immediately.
He makes his way to the benches and starts calling out “Grandma!” hoping that Rose will not take too long to leave with him. He worries that she has forgotten their civilian identities, or that she didn’t see enough of her own grandchildren to feel comfortable responding to “Grandma” just yet. He tries desperately. “Rose, Agent Howard, Grandma! Can you hear me?” With that last call, he lost the game. He doesn’t care. Oliver screams until he begins to cry wildly. He doubles over and falls to his knees. He is right on the ground, weeping like a big baby. “Rose, Agent Howard, Grandma!”
Rose carries Oliver off to the car, and she says they can talk for as long as he needs. She puts the key in the ignition.
“Please, don’t take me back. I can’t do anything right at home. Don’t take me back. I want to stay with my grandma for a while.”
“Tell me why you’re afraid of going home.” For the first time since they’ve met, Rose has made a demand.
But Oliver believes that Rose will not turn him in. She is on his side. He knows she is. She is Agent Howard. She is Grandma. She is the world’s best cook. She is not a traitor. Oliver knows that she would never rat on him.
“Kids make fun of me because I am short and because of my freckles, and they say that I am a dinosaur freak. Sometimes my big sister Rachel calls me a dinosaur freak, and she says that she is embarrassed, and that hurts so much, I wish she would just punch me instead of saying things like that, because even when she says sorry and I try to accept her apology, I can’t because I can’t forget the thing, so I can’t really stop being upset.”
“No need to rush. Take deep breaths. Tell me anything you need to. I’ll drive in circles for a while,” Rose says.
“Belinda is my younger sister. She’s never said anything that’s bothered me for more than a couple of minutes, but I think this is because she is only four, and Mom says she is just figuring out how to express herself. But she gets away with so many things that I don’t, like not writing thank-you notes, and pointing at things she likes at stores and saying, ‘Daddy, I want.’ And Mom always takes her side when we fight, which she did especially and maybe too much after the fish-flushing incident, even though she and Dad were both on my side when Belinda took a big bite into my stomach and some blood gushed out.”
“A fish-flushing incident?” Rose asks.
“I took Belinda’s goldfish that she got at a fair and flushed it down the toilet before it was even dead, because that’s where fish go when they die. For them, that’s heaven. But Mom got really mad and called me Oliver Mitch Kelly, which she only does when I’m about to get in big trouble.”
“You realize that wasn’t very nice?” Rose puts it like a question, but it’s clear she isn’t asking.
“I know, I know. But I like Belinda a lot. She’s got this thing called ‘spunk’ that makes everyone like her, and the way her ponytail is always right on top of her head makes me giggle every time.”
“And your parents?”
“Dad says that Mom is lost in her own odyssey, which is the name of the book she never stops talking about. I heard Dad tell her once that she talks to her kids like we’re students in her ancient civilizations class, but we’re not even in college yet. She said she’s sorry she doesn’t speak to her family condescendingly.”
“What do you wish you could change, Oliver?”
“I wish the other kids would talk to me, and I wish Mom would never call me Oliver Mitch Kelly, and I wish I didn’t say the wrong things, and I wish Belinda wouldn’t bite me and would just grow up already but would keep her ponytail and her spunk anyway, and I wish Rachel didn’t hate me, and I wish she didn’t cry herself to sleep, and I wish Mom and Dad were always as happy as they are when the lightning bugs are out.”
“Never stop wishing. It’s time I take you home.”
“Oliver, it’s time. Where do you live?”
“I won’t tell you.”
“Why won’t you keep me around anymore?”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. You can’t stay with me. Besides, I might stay in Needham much longer. There’s another place I need to see, which is why it’s better for you to go home. Would you tell me where you live?”
“I live past the college and the playground. My house is on the street where all the trees have red leaves this month.”
“Past John’s antique shop? Actually, do you have an address? You know, the one your parents give to people who need to send them mail?”
“1718 Madeline Court.”
It’s evening by the time they get to Oliver’s neighborhood. If only it were a few hours later, Oliver would point out Orion’s Belt. He would tell Rose the story of the three stars that represent the belt of a powerful hunter who was sent to the heavens to look down on us after he was killed by Artemis’ bow. He gets the feeling he will never tell her this story.
When Oliver gets back, he will have a lot of questions to answer, and now, he is thinking of all the things he tried and failed to escape. He thinks of the goldfish he flushed when it was still alive, of the way he is invisible unless he is doing a bad thing, and of the fact that even his compliments make people upset. He thinks about going west young man, and resting after school, and worshiping at the altar of the television, which is his favorite god he thinks. He thinks of Rachel and her nose and her sniffles, and the note he left her. He thinks of the D in Mrs. D. that stands for devil, but only in the house. He thinks of the articles Dad is always writing, of his frantic typing, of the way he cannot steer the wheel of the Dirt Mobile without breaking all the rules.
They get to Madeline Court, and Oliver says, “This is it. I live at the end of this block.”
“I’ll leave you here,” Rose says, “but first, tell me one thing: they’re not bad parents, are they?”
“They’re not bad, but they’re not the best,” Oliver says. He unfastens his seatbelt, opens the door, and says, “Goodbye, Grandma.”
Rose says, “Goodbye, Oliver.” They will keep each other’s secrets.
Oliver walks down the block to his house. He thinks of Odysseus, who was away from home for so many years, and after his journey, came back with a story of the Cyclops and sirens and warfare, and he thinks that in his own way, he has had a similar journey. With the straps of his backpack hanging over both his shoulders, Oliver must put in more effort than usual to ensure that his movements are steady. He has had a long trip; he has carried a heavy load, and when he finally reaches his house, with a tentative finger going forward, he stands still in front of the purple door and rings the bell.
He waits for Mom or Dad or maybe even Rachel, but the person who opens the door is his aunt Nelly, and she does not raise her voice to ask where he’s been or to say they’ve all been looking for him for hours. She takes him in her arms and squeezes him so tightly he is afraid that his bones will snap or that he will lose his lunch on the tiled floor. Belinda slithers toward Oliver on the floor; she is pretending to be a snake. Flashing her tiny white teeth she says, “I bite you for being bad. You can’t play hide-and-seek so long.”
Aunt Nelly goes into the kitchen and picks up the phone. She dials someone’s number and begins to cry. With long pauses between her words, she says, “He’s back, Sue. Oliver is here.” Oliver feels as if he has stepped into the home of another family where nothing that he does is wrong. “They’ll be home soon with graham crackers and chocolate bars and marshmallows for s’mores,” Aunt Nelly reports.
They all walk into the living room together and Aunt Nelly nudges Oliver on the shoulder. She asks, “Are you all right?” and he looks at her and says, “I’m tired. I walked for a very long time.”
Belinda asks, “Oli, do you have any ouchies?”
“No, Belinda,” he says, “nothing hurts.” But all he can think of as he knows that Mom and Dad and Rachel must be making their way back is that Rose might still be waiting in her electric blue car at the end of the street, singing along to songs on the radio at all the right moments, or perhaps she had already made her way back to the bridge.
The rumbling of the Dirt Mobile puts an end to Oliver’s train of thought.
Dad parks the Dirt Mobile in the driveway and uses his key to unlock the front door. Rachel comes in and tosses her denim jacket on the floor. She runs to the living room to see Oliver and says, “God, twerp. What the hell did you do that for?” She rubs her fingers through his hair and slaps him on his arm. Belinda comes to tug Rachel’s arm and says, “That’s not very nice.” She starts to bite Rachel’s index finger, but Rachel says, “Bad girl, no. Don’t do that. Oliver did a very bad thing today. He had us all freaking out.”
Dad says, “Easy does it, Scout,” and then he walks up to Oliver and kisses him on the forehead. He says, “You had us all scared shitless, Champ.”
Oliver says, “I’m sorry.”
Mom bends down and rests her head on Oliver’s shoulder. She begins to cry and shouts, “Don’t you ever do this to me again,” and then she holds him tightly.
Belinda says, “I’m here too. I’m here. I’m here. Look at me. I didn’t hide today.”
Dad says, “I know you’re here. I won’t forget.”
Oliver looks at Mom and asks, “You brought home the marshmallows, right?”