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Boys & Girls Together
By William Goldman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 William Goldman
All rights reserved.
AARON WOULD NOT COME out.
Nestled inside his mother, blind and wrinkled and warm, he defied the doctors. Charlotte's screams skimmed along the hospital corridors, but Aaron, lodged at his peculiar angle, was mindless of them. Charlotte vomited and shrieked and wanted to die. As that possibility became less and less remote, the doctors hurriedly decided to operate and, deftly cutting through the wall of Charlotte's abdomen, they slit the uterus and reached inside.
Pink and white like a candy stick, Aaron entered the world.
It seemed to be a great place to visit. His father could not have been gladder to see him. Henry Firestone, universally known as Hank, was a big man, confident, with a quick smile and a loud, rough voice. Aaron never forgot that voice; years later he would still spin suddenly around—on the street, in a restaurant, a theater lobby—whenever he heard a voice remotely similar.
Hank was a lawyer, for Simmons and Sloane, the Wall Street firm, and when he was thirty-one Mr. Sloane himself made Hank a full partner, Mr. Simmons being bed-ridden that day with gout, a disease to which he noisily succumbed some months later. The week he became a partner, Hank was sent to Roanoke, Virginia, for a three-day business trip.
He stayed two weeks and came back married.
Her name was Charlotte Crowell, of the Roanoke Crowells, or what once had been the Roanoke Crowells, the family having been comfortably poor since shortly before the turn of the century. Charlotte was tiny, barely five feet tall, with a sweet face and a voice as soft as her husband's was harsh. Her hair was black and she wore it long and straight, down her back; even when it began turning cruelly white (she was not yet thirty) she wore it that way.
Hank and Charlotte lived in New York for a few months but then, the summer after they were married, they moved to a large white colonial on Library Place, a gently curving tree-lined street in the best section of Princeton, New Jersey. Mr. Sloane himself lived in Princeton, on Battle Road, of course, and when he saw that the house on Library Place was up for sale he mentioned it casually to Hank, who immediately took Charlotte for a look-see. Charlotte loved it—it reminded her so of Roanoke—so Hank bought it for her. He couldn't afford it but he bought it anyway, partially because Charlotte loved it and partially because she was pregnant and everybody told them New York was no place to bring up children. They moved into the house the week after Deborah was born, all waxy and red, the only time she was ever unattractive. The wax soon washed away, the red softened into pink, and she became a beautiful baby, fat, spoiled and sassy. Charlotte adored her and Hank liked her well enough—he cooed at her and carried her around on his big shoulders and gently poked her soft flesh till she giggled—Hank liked her fine, but he was waiting for his son.
The wait took over two years. Hank worked hard at the office, making more money than he ever had before in spite of the depression, and Charlotte hired a full-time maid and then a gardener to tend the lawn on summer mornings. They entertained a good deal and they entertained well; Charlotte had the gift. Hank gave up tennis for golf, which bored him, but it was better for business. A lot of things bored Hank until the evening Aaron emerged.
Before the boy was a month old his room was crammed with toys and dolls and music boxes, and a menagerie of stuffed animals pyramided against the foot of his canopied bed. Almost every afternoon Hank journeyed north to F. A. O. Schwarz's for more and more presents, and when Charlotte warned he was in danger of buying out the store he only nodded happily and told her she had guessed exactly his last remaining ambition. Nights Hank spent in the boy's room, rocking him to sleep, singing soft lullabies in his big rough voice. Whenever the boy was sick—and he was sick a good deal—Hank would go to work late and return early, calling in constantly from New York, always asking the same question: "Aaron? How is Aaron? How is my son?"
Hank loved Aaron; Charlotte loved Deborah. There were no troubles on Library Place.
For Aaron's third birthday Hank bought him a jungle gym. They set it up together, the two of them, in the back yard. It was a marvelous structure, more than six feet high, and Hank used to take Aaron and lift him, setting him on the very top rung. "Hold tight now," Hank would say. "Hold tight and stay up there all by yourself." So Aaron would hold tight, sitting on the top rung, his tiny fists gripping the bars for balance. Hank would back away from him then, calling out "Scared?" and Aaron would yell "No, no," even though he was.
One Saturday afternoon the maid was out and Charlotte was watching Deborah perform at ballet class, so Hank and Aaron played cops and robbers for a while, shooting each other, falling, suddenly up again, running pell-mell across the lawn. After that it was time to play on the jungle gym. Hank lifted Aaron, carried him on his big shoulders, carefully placed him on the very top rung. Hank started backing away. "Hold tight now," he said. Aaron held tight. "Are you scared?" he said. "No," Aaron cried, "no." Hank stood a distance from the jungle gym and smiled his quick smile. Then, thoughtlessly, he paled, falling to his knees. He gasped for a moment, then slipped to the grass. Gasping louder, he crawled forward, crawled toward the jungle gym, saying, "Aaron. Aaron." He raised one big arm, then dropped it. Reaching for his son, he died, sprawled full length, white on the green lawn.
Aaron giggled. "That was good, Daddy," he said. He did not know the name of the game, but whatever it was it was obviously still on—his father, after all, had not answered—so he giggled again and stared down at the dead man. It was a fine summer day, windy and warm, and Aaron stared up at the clouds a moment, watching them skid across the sky. Grabbing on to the bars with all his strength, he looked down again—it frightened him to look down, it was so far—but his father still had not moved. "That's good, Daddy," Aaron said. He giggled once more, lifting his head, staring at the clouds. His fists were beginning to get sore from holding the bars, but he did not dare loosen his grip. "Down, Daddy," Aaron said, looking up. "I wanna come down." The game was still on; his father did not move. Aaron gazed at the clouds and started to sing. "How sweet to be a cloud floating in the blue. It makes you very proud to be a little cloud." It was a song from Winnie the Pooh—Aaron knew all the songs from Winnie the Pooh—and Pooh sang it when he was floating up after the honey on the tail of the balloon. But he never got the honey because the bees found him out and Pooh fell all the way down. Pooh fell. Aaron's hands ached terribly. "Daddy," he said louder. "Take me down, Daddy. Please take me down."
His father made no move to do so.
"Daddy," Aaron said, frightened now. "I'll drink my milk I will I will I promise but take me down." He hated to cry—his father never cried—but suddenly he was crying, the tears stinging his eyes. "Take me down, Daddy." He began to shake and his hands were numb and the tears would not stop. "TAKE ME DOWN DAH-DEE." His chest burned and the clouds were monsters diving at him so he closed his eyes but he thought he might fall so he opened them, alternating his stare, up to the diving monsters, down to the still figure, up and down, up and down. Aaron began to scream. "DAH-DEE DAH-DEE DAH-DEE TAKE ME DOWN DAH-DEE TAKE ME DOWN TAKE ME DOWN DAH-DEE DAH-DEE DAH-DEE TAKE ME DOWN."
He was still screaming when Charlotte found him an hour later. She ran across the lawn, took him down. Then she dropped to her knees beside the still white figure on the grass.
Soon she was screaming too.
For a short period after the funeral there were no changes in the life at Library Place. Then one morning the gardener didn't come; a high-school boy was hired to mow the lawn. Two months later Charlotte let the maid go. There was no money coming in now, no money coming in. They had always lived beyond Hank's income and probably Charlotte should have given up the big house sooner, but she determined to keep it, working desperately, cutting corners, cleaning and patching and cooking until finally, eight months after the death, Charlotte, exhausted, found a new place to live, the first floor of a yellow frame house on Nassau Street, close to the center of town.
Deborah wept as her mother packed her clothes. "Now, Deborah Crowell Firestone, you stop that, hear?" Charlotte said in her soft Southern voice. Aaron stood silently in the doorway of Deborah's room, watching. "Oh, baby," Charlotte sighed, opening her arms. "You come to me." Deborah ran into her mother's arms. Charlotte rocked her gently, back and forth. "It's all right, baby, hear? Mother's going to make it all all right. Everything's going to be wonderful, baby. Mother promises. Mother loves you and she swears it's going to be all right. Mother loves—"
Aaron crept into the room.
"Get out," Deborah said.
Charlotte said, "Now, Deborah, you stop talking that way."
"Get out," Deborah repeated.
"Aaron is your brother. Aaron is my son. Aaron is a part of this family. Have you packed your games, Aaron?"
"Well, maybe you better pack your games, do you think?"
Aaron turned and said, "All right."
"And stay out," Deborah called after him.
The yellow frame house on Nassau Street was owned by Miss Alexandra Hamilton, an elderly lady who had been teaching high school in Princeton since before the First World War. Miss Hamilton had been married twice, both times to the same man, an irresistibly handsome plumber from Newark. He was still alive and plumbing, but after the second divorce Miss Hamilton resumed her maiden name. She met Charlotte and the children as they moved in, set down the law of the land—"There is to be no noise"—and promptly departed to the second floor via the outside stairway, which she always used. They heard her occasionally, going in and coming out, but they saw her only once a month, when she stopped by for the rent.
Shortly after Aaron was five, Charlotte went out and got a job. The money from the sale of the white colonial was going much too quickly, so one morning she combed her long black hair, put on her best white hat—from behind she looked like a school girl—and left the house "to seek her fortune," as she told her children, giggling nervously while she said it. "When she returned to the house several hours later she reported that she had "acquired the enormously responsible position" of saleslady at the Browse-Around, an expensive shop on Nassau Street catering to girls and young women. From that day on she seemed forever to be talking about the Browse-Around, about style and color and cost and the women who brought their little girls in for clothing and how much they spent and "not one of 'em's as pretty as you, Deborah; not one holds a candle to you." A month after she had been at the store she brought home a playsuit for Deborah. It was marked down, she said, and, besides, she had her employee's discount, and a week after the playsuit came a dress, and then there followed other dresses, and pajamas and shoes and gloves and socks and blouses and coats and hats.
Aaron began to read.
All the time, lying on his bed, his thin arms holding the books upright on his stomach, his thin fingers turning the pages. He was tall and bony and long, and he ate only when forced. He had no interest in food. Charlotte forbade his reading at the table and at night she forced him to turn out his bed light and sleep. He would obey partially, lying still, waiting for her to go to bed. Then he would read into the night until his eyes burned.
One hot summer day when he was seven Aaron Firestone sat on his bicycle, staring hypnotically at the traffic on Nassau Street. The street was crowded; the cars seemed hardly to be moving at all. A truck lumbered noisily toward his house. The truck stopped, then started again, but slowly, slowly. Aaron pushed hard on the foot pedal and the bike left the sidewalk and skidded over the curb, down into the hot street. Aaron fell backward, balance gone. The truck braked, stopping, but not before its great wheels roiled up and over Aaron's legs.
He awoke in the hospital to find his mother leaning over him, weeping. Looking away from her tears, he muttered, "I'm sorry, Mama." Charlotte sobbed aloud, reaching for her son, cradling him. Hidden beneath the folds of Charlotte's dress, Aaron found himself smiling.
He was in the hospital over a month. Charlotte came to visit every day and sometimes Deborah came too, but mostly it was just his mother. Aaron got to like it in the hospital until Charlotte told him that his hips had been damaged, crushed somehow by the truck, and he would be able to walk again, not well, probably not without some pain, but he would be able to walk.
Aaron started practicing with crutches. Then canes. Finally he was able to move unaided. It hurt, a lot at first, and the pain never completely left him, especially when he was tired, but by the time they brought him home from the hospital he walked by himself.
It was a steaming afternoon, and Charlotte, first seeing that Aaron's needs were accounted for, excused herself and hurried to the Browse-Around. Deborah appeared briefly, wearing a new dress, and she modeled it for Aaron before going down the street to play. Aaron lay on his bed and tried to read. The room was very hot. His throat felt dry and there was a different dryness deep behind his eyes, and perspiration poured off his thin face.
Aaron shut his book and his eyes. He lay perfectly still until a fly buzzed near him. He lunged for it, missing, but managing by the sharpness of his movement to cause his hips to hurt. Aaron bit his lip until the pain was gone. Then, taking a deep breath, he moved slowly off the bed to the telephone. When he got the Browse-Around he asked for his mother, and when he got her he said, "Did you ask me to call you? I forgot."
"I couldn't remember if you asked me to call you at the store to tell you how I was or not, I'm fine."
"Good. Of course you are."
"I'm reading this book. It's a very thrilling adventure story."
"It's my son," Charlotte said.
"What?" Aaron said.
"I was just explaining who you were to Mrs. Cavanaugh, Aaron. Mrs. Cavanaugh is buying the cutest—"
"I loved Deborah's new dress."
"Oh, good. Aaron? Thank you for calling; I'm very glad you called—"
"Bye-bye, Mama," Aaron said, hanging up. He moved back to his bed and lay down. Then he got up and walked very slowly out of the room, out of the house. On the sidewalk, he paused for a moment to stare at the spot where the truck had hit him. Aaron turned and, forcing his legs to obey, began to limp along Nassau Street. He was sweating terribly and his legs hurt more and more with each slow step, but he dragged himself along.
Almost an hour later he reached the white house on Library Place. Aaron stopped. In the yard he saw three children playing, and their high laughter reached him on the thick summer air. He hated to cry—his father never cried—but suddenly he was crying, bitterly, painfully, out of control. Aaron dropped to the cement sidewalk and wept. When he was done, he vowed not to let it happen again.
His word was good for close to twenty years.
The days that followed proved easily endurable. He read books. Quickly at first, but by training himself he increased his natural speed until, by the time he was twelve, he could finish almost any book in a single day. He began to draw, his thin fingers fluttering hurriedly across white notebook paper, leaving behind an accurate image of a tree or a gun or an elegant car. He taught himself to play the piano even though he never had a lesson. Deborah got the lessons, one each week from a university student who didn't really need the money but who liked to look at Deborah for an hour each Tuesday; even at fourteen, Deborah was something to see. During the lessons Aaron would stand outside the living-room door, never making a sound—he was good at that; he would regularly frighten his mother by appearing suddenly in doorways or dark halls, making her spin around, making her gasp. And while the lesson went on inside, Aaron would listen, and when the university student said "Cup your hands, no, relax them, relax them," Aaron would cup and relax his hands. Then, when the student was gone, he would rush to the piano and practice. He had a good ear. Deborah had none, but the lessons continued for more than a year because Charlotte felt the playing of Chopin to be a minimum basic requirement for any young lady worthy of the name. By the end of the year, Aaron could play. So he played, and he read, and he drew.
But his greatest love was writing.
He had begun to write quite by accident. He had been to the movies alone one night and, as was his ritual, he crept silently into the house. When he heard his mother's voice he stopped.
"I'm worried about Aaron," Charlotte said.
Excerpted from Boys & Girls Together by William Goldman. Copyright © 2001 William Goldman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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