When we were rich, we had no real use for the Easter Bunny.
We had an Egg Man. When I found out other children had the Bunny, I didn't envy them. Because either way it's your father, of course, and a father is an important thing and things happen to them over time, plus I'd just rather not have the Easter Bunny. Who needs the embarrassment. Especially if you went downtown and found him in Public Square trying to amuse everyone as well as sell them something, except he was eight feet tall and his eyes didn't blink and his teeth didn't move and some of the smaller children started screaming or sobbing and had to be instantly whisked into the arms of their mothers. All because of the Easter Bunny. No, I'm sorry, I mean maybe I should apologize, but we had Egg Man.
But I already said, that's when we were rich.
Easter Sunday, Egg Man was in charge of hiding. He was very good at it, so it was natural to think it came to him naturally. He hid chocolate eggs in baskets from us and jewelry and such in a blue box from Mother, but the main thing is, he did it with clues, and the whole thing got harder as you got older. We had a big house, and Egg Man made sure finding the stuff was almost impossible.
Mother said it was so Protestant of him. To maybe make us look until Christmas. Once Mother had to, her clues were so hard.
Egg Man hid other things also from Mother. Easter afternoon, after she took us to church, he took over and took us to Cleveland. To the worst parts of it, was the best part. Which was the part he hid from Mother. It was about the one thing he did alone with us all year, but it was a good one. Sometimes it was to a river he claimed was famous for burning. The Cuyahoga, it was called, but Matt called it The Combustible. It had already caught fire twice, see, so Matt said that was the name for it.
Easter when I was still ten, all of the hidden things had been found except Mother's.
Noon mass was over and Clarine, Matt, Cabot, Luke, Lucy, and I were all packed in Mother's blue Buick convertible, except the top wasn't down. It was hot but we were helpless, because Mother was hanging back in the church parking lot, planning to talk to people. That's what she did after church on Sunday and it was much worse on Easter. We were usually used to it, but today we wanted to get home and see about Egg Man.
But a woman in a wide black hat saw Mother across the parking lot and started over on her walker. All of us in the hot car moaned. Clarine flashed dark eyes around, so we stopped. Then she told us to roll our windows all the way down.
Clarine was the oldest except for our parents. She lived with us and all, but she wasn't our sister. She was really the nanny, but really the housekeeper. Today she sat up where Mother would sit if Egg Man were driving. Shotgun, Matt liked to make a big point of calling it.
Like Egg Man himself, Clarine wasn't Catholic. Today she'd come to see the Easter hats, to hold Lucy, and maybe for curiosity, because in Catholic Church, you can see people kneel down. During mass, she hadn't knelt down herself, though. When I'd tried to not do it with her, Mother had frowned.
"Boyce, girl," Clarine had whispered when I tried it. "Do like the others." But at first I thought she said, Do unto others. It was an unbelievable coincidence, to have that happen in church, and instead of praying like I was supposed to, I sat around smiling about it.
Matt was the oldest. He sat up front, his head all slumped, due to staring down chronically at his new double-breasted, brass-buttoned blazer. He'd complained that morning that cool kids would see it. Now he lifted his head for about the first time since being ordered into the jacket regardless. "People," he said, "let us pray. Let us pray she doesn't run into any more people." He said it with his hands up, palms out, as if he had self-appointed himself our personal preacher. It was pretty funny, but you couldn't laugh too much or he'd do a ton more of it.
Clarine said, "Children. Please. Shut up." Which was something, because she usually said, "Children, please hush up." She was from the South, and that's where they say that. But "shut up" wasn't even allowed. Even for adults, strictly forbidden.
But she sure had said it, and Cabot and I turned to look at each other, bumping our hats with the streamers. We were so close in age, we had to wear the same hats. Except Cabot had long blond hair and looked like a picture from a magazine that sometimes features the world's most presentable children. Pictured in a riding habit with a horse, I bet, riding along with her beautiful mother. That Town and Country, no doubt. Anyway, under my hat, I had a crew cut.
Luke, in pint-size brown loafers, sat with his legs and arms ramrod straight and his eyes squeezed shut, bearing up under the delay rather nicely. He'd once had special preschool psychologists who had taught him to do that.
Over Clarine's shoulder, Lucy tried to wing her own head off, but then I suppose she gave up. Her Easter bonnet went all cockeyed, and she had to peer around the brim of it to still see us in back. This made her appear of debatable character for a two-year-old, like one of those questionable men in the movies you're not allowed to watch, the ones with the guns and the crooked fedoras.
I knew in my heart church hadn't made any difference.
We had been quite in love with each other inside when we were told to thank God and sing Hallelujah, but now we'd forgotten all that, because of Mother keeping us waiting. If we didn't get home soon Easter was pointless. Egg Man might say it was too late for Cleveland.
During the sermon, my stomach felt strange, though to be fair to the speaker that could have been chocolate for breakfast. But it did seem that every time you tried to really listen to a preacher, you automatically heard about another leper. Then I decided it wasn't chocolate or lepers. The problem was, I was lapsing. Which can happen to Catholics. Lapsing made my stomach feel strange, is all that I'm saying.
Outside the Buick, Mother was still stalling.
Mrs. Taft waddled over, trailed by two more ladies with canes and heavy pearl necklaces. They all stared wide-eyed into the Buick and Mother introduced us for the first time since last Sunday. We said, How do you do, smiled and everything and possibly would have curtsied if we could have, and then we resented those poor ladies for it. Even if Egg Man weren't Protestant, this was the part of church he wouldn't be going for.
The ladies straightened up so we could see only the pearls and eyeglasses tangled hopelessly at their stomachs. Then they told Mother how weren't we simply the sweetest-looking family, with simply the handsomest children with simply the biggest blue eyes and simply the cutest blue coats and simply the longest blond hair. Except the windows were open and we could hear all of it.
In whispers, we complained about the factual errors they'd made. Such as Matt's hair was almost black, almost like Mother's. And mine wasn't long and blond because of the crew cut. I told the others maybe their code word was simply, and they were telling each other in code we were a simple family, see, as in not so smart, without having to break the bad news to Mother.
At that, Clarine looked displeased, then changed her mind and chuckled, but with a certain finality. Amen, is what she was saying. Could make you suspicious she thought we were simple. But all she actually said was, "Boyce, girl, now hush up now." She said it the usual way, nice and soft and southern. With a smile, even.
Then the last car in the lot pulled out. But Mother must have been hoping for one last slowpoke in a wheelchair, because now she began fishing around in her purse finding her keys and inching around the car to check the door was closed okay for the baby. When two more ladies popped up in the windshield, we all groaned without even trying to muffle it. "Hush up. Now." This time she wasn't smiling.
The longer we waited in enforced silence, the more I was forced to think about church.
After the sermon, Father Dietz had asked for the quiet necessary to search everybody's consciences. Except he said "social" consciences, I think in honor of people who didn't exactly live in the neighborhood. Since I didn't know where to find that one, how could I search it? I looked up at Mother.
But she was already searching. Her head was bowed and her eyes were closed and her lips were pursed. I wondered if having a social conscience made you beautiful, with smooth skin and a sweet mouth and good taste in clothing. Mother's made her look like a chic saint, one dressed up in a smart, navy blue wool suit. I tugged on her sleeve.
She opened one eye, put her finger to her mouth, shook her head frowning, and went back to searching. She was fed up, you could tell, because that was after the do unto others.
I suddenly felt sorry about the old ladies. So I looked around to my brothers and sisters and said maybe Mother was just out there acting Christian, to lonely people because it was Easter Sunday and all, and we should be nice and quiet about it.
Clarine nodded approval, and nobody said anything for a while. Then Matt said between acting Christian and glomming-up compliments about your sideshow kids, tell me the difference.
Clarine turned and glared at him.
Then Cabot said, "Hey, only the front seat's a sideshow."
And Matt mumbled, "The backseat's a bigger one." And he glanced at Clarine, like he was actually expecting backup, her being an official front-seater like himself.
And Cabot said, "Hey, Matt? What's with the blazer?"
And Luke finally exploded with, "But what about CLEVELAND?!"
And we all said hush up, because Mother couldn't know that's where Dad took us on Easters. She couldn't hear about Cleveland. It was downtown.
Then finally God sent Batman out to save us. Through the church doors here came Father Dietz all in black, flashing his pastor cape with a flourish, making a big thing of it, making us laugh, opening the car door and installing Mother in behind the wheel, as if even God had had enough of her loitering in his parking lot. We cried, "Bye, Father Dietz, thank you! Happy Easter! Thanks a million!" And then we were finally off, heading for home.
Except we forgot another tradition. On Easter and other Holy Days of Obligation, Mother sometimes celebrated after church by taking a spin around Shaker Heights, looking at everyone's houses. Even though Matt said, "Are you serious?" Mother automatically took the turn to start the tour at South Park Boulevard. Cabot and I crashed hats again turning to shake our heads at each other. Cleveland was becoming out of the question. Although secretly, we both liked this part of it, the looking at everyone's houses.
On the first corner was Matt's friend Rey McDowell's house. Frankly, it looked like the White House. It was painted-white sandstone, like the White House, and was about as wide as the White House, though not quite as tall. But the prettiest part wasn't even the house, it was the way it was wrapped like a present, with its rounded-off hedge, which rippled like a long green ribbon over the top of the hill, down the hill, around the corner, and across the front, ending in a nice pink bow of rhododendrons over where my friend Mickey Knight's flat-topped hedge began. That is, Mickey Knight's parents' flat-topped hedge.
That hedge grew so high you couldn't even see Mickey's house, but if you could, it was really quite pretty. As we went by, Cabot said, "Gee, looks like everyone's gone on vacation." Then they all started grumbling how come we didn't get to go, spring skiing or something, which started sounding so bratty, I was embarrassed to be with them.
I said, "Relax. Maybe we can't afford to."
Mother frowned at me in the rearview mirror.
"Well, we're not as rich as the McDowells, right?"
But it was as if Mother had you on remote control through her tiny mirror, though, because I instantly said, "Excuse me."
You weren't allowed to mention money, much less who was very rich and who wasn't. That and lying. Plus saying shut up and you guys. And of course telling people our house cost a dollar.
Mother's raised eyebrow was still in the mirror. "Boyce, honey? What's the matter? Don't you feel well?"
I didn't answer right off. I didn't know what the matter was anymore, or if there was even a word for it. But Mother's eye was still waiting. So under pressure like that, I chose a weird one. "Me? I'm remarkable."
Luke reached across Cabot and patted me sympathetically. He knew I wasn't remarkable. That was an old person's word. You'd have to be almost dead to come up with it.
I slid closer to my window and looked out, getting ready for my other best friend's house, Mickey Joslyn's. I'd always thought Mickey's was the best Tudor ever made, because it wasn't one of those tall, phony-looking Tudors, it was sort of low Tudor, old Tudor, hacked-up Tudor, as if a couple of Tudor warriors carved out a house there say five hundred years ago. About eight of the bedrooms had fireplaces big enough to cook a moose in, but my favorite room was Mickey's mother's. It was blue and yellow, which may not sound too good, but it was that certain blue, the color not really of the sea, but what the sea should be, and there were a couple of yellow things tossed around, say a pillow on the bed to break up the blue, or when you stepped into the room you'd probably start thinking you were walking on water. There was also a Monet painting on one of the walls, and it had a sea in it, exactly the color the sea should be.
I already said, I liked looking at everyone's houses.
Then it was extremely quiet in the car, because of Grandfather's house. Once you passed the second Mickey's, the next corner was Grandfather's, or at least Grandfather's house before he died. Everybody said, There's Grandfather's. It was definitely our favorite one.
It was just an old brick house with wings on either side, but we could remember being in there, and sinking back carefully into big, upholstered chairs with cake balanced on china plates, and being no taller than the dining room table itself, and it made you sit still in the car to think it all ended because Grandfather died. I didn't say it out loud because of not mentioning money, but when I saw his house, I remembered how he gave us ours for a dollar.
I was two, and we came to Grandmother's funeral from New York City, where Mother and Dad and Matt and Cabot and I lived then. After, there was a ride in a long line of cars with lights on at noon, then another ride, through these very streets, in Grandfather's old Mercury, a car he christened that day for our benefit, naming it the Dream Machine. And then our house, surrounded by flowers, filled up with furniture by Grandfather and long kept a secret from Grandmother (who could never really know because she could never really approve Dad's marrying a Catholic), and then Matt, Cabot, and me running all through and around, and then Dad and Grandfather shaking hands, and Dad opening his brown wallet and handing over one single green dollar. Looking at Grandfather's, I remembered now how I never forgot that.
"Hallelujah," Matt said, but not with his hands up. "It's over, you guys."
Mother said, "Matt."
We circled back to South Park and then to our house. Ours was nice and everything, but it didn't look like the Magic Kingdom like some of the others. It was just big and brick with a lot of windows. In the sunlight, they were shiny and dark, and the panes in the French doors almost looked like so many mirrors, and in them you could see reflections so intricate you could practically watch the wind blowing in the trees. That was all there was to it.
Though of course the inside also, with Grandfather's touch on it. The tall front windows had been treated in pale silk curtains finished with a slash of valance at the top, the ornate moldings had been stripped of paint, the walls papered in the faintest eggshell. In the dining room, the original old murals depicting faint green hills and glowing stacks of hay and a shepherd boy in a gold straw hat tending round gray sheep had been restored as well as reasonable, then left to delicately crack and peel. The wood floors downstairs were covered with old rugs Grandfather probably rolled up and carted off from his own house when Grandmother wasn't looking. Then Grandfather had retiled the bathrooms, filled up the linen closets, and stuffed the library with books. In the basement, he fitted out a toolroom, a playroom, and a sort of a gym. You'd have to say, it had almost everything.
I looked up at Mother. She was already leaning forward a little, peering through the windshield as we rounded the curve in the driveway, looking, like all of us, to make sure Egg Man was there. When he strolled out of the shadows of the garage into the sunlight, we knew we were finally home.
The Buick stopped right up beside Dad. Mother rolled down her window and stuck her face out, her green eyes blinking up, her long dark hair falling back, looking pretty but also impertinent, like a belle, from the South, which she wasn't. She was born in New York City.
We all watched them kiss, though today's wasn't one of their best ones. Dad's weekend wardrobe was probably why, especially on Easter Sunday. His same old paint-splattered khaki pants, canvas shoes, and white oxford shirt with the rips up the sleeves. Today he had Grandfather's old gray felt hat also, pushed back a little which made him look like a boy, though a tall one. Mother liked him when he looked like an adman, in a proper suit and tie. That's what he wore to work, but the minute he came home, he changed into something sloppy. She tried to upgrade him, she bought him cashmere smoking jackets with satin collars and such, but he'd just say "ah" when he opened the box, and that was the last you'd see of it. Anyway, you could tell by the kiss, she sure wasn't backing down on the wardrobe thing, especially on Easter Sunday.
Dad put his hand on the top of the Buick, leaned down and looked in at us.
"Hi, Egg Man!" we all cried, making sure to call him that and not Dad today.
"Fair enough," he said. "My turn. Into the car." He swung around and went for the garage, and after Cabot and I nearly knocked off our hats grinning at each other, we climbed out of her blue Buick convertible and into his blue Buick hardtop. They really liked Buicks, is all I can tell you.
"Georgie boy," Mother said while Dad snapped Lucy into the car seat. That's what she called him when she wanted an answer, which was sometimes hard as anything to get out of him. "Just give me a hint. Just one little rhymed clue where you're all going."
Luke rolled down his window. "You're supposed to call him Egg Man."
Mother reached in and put her hand on Luke's head, so she could shut him up without having to come right out and say so. She smirked at Dad and said, "Egg Man? What's the itinerary?"
Dad got in the driver's seat and stroked his chin, taking his time, so we'd all know how tough it was to come up with this stuff. "Hmmm. I'm not winking..."
We already started to look around at one another.
This was a hard one.
"I'm smart, and I'm art."
Mother frowned. "Not that statue at the Museum, George. Not The Thinker."
I said, "Art?" Are you kidding. I'd been planning all day to see a river that burns. "Hey, Dad?"
He turned and winked at me. "Hey, Zu," he said, which is an extra name he called me because of some movie.
"George, that statue was bombed. With dynamite."
It was? I didn't know that part.
Dad said, "Then how about some nice ducks in the pond?"
Only Luke looked anywhere close to bowled over.
"But the ducks are at the Museum, George. In the lagoon." You could tell, she didn't want us to run into The Thinker. Which only made us want to, to tell you the truth.
"Roses are red, boxes are blue," Dad said, rolling up his window and reminding Mother she had some finding to do. If she didn't find her blue box, she just didn't get it. She might get more rhymed clues, but not the blue box and the thing she always liked that was in it. I already said, he'd let her look for a year.
As we went down the driveway, we turned in our seats to see Mother and Clarine, waving. They were like those two faces on the velvet curtains when you went for children's plays at the Cleveland Playhouse. One laughing, one frowning. Clarine was laughing. But poor Mother, she hated losing us. To a Protestant, probably, and on a Holy Day of Obligation.
On the way to the ducks, we asked Dad more than once if he didn't have something slightly more spectacular in mind for after, something more like a river that burns. But he didn't answer. We just had to pray we'd see something worse.
We expected the ducks would be corny, but I guess we were wrong. Besides, Dad said it was a fine old tradition, for the people of Cleveland to see ducks on Easter.
We walked around the circular road for the Museum, and came out on top of the lagoon, looking down. Below us were hundreds of black girls with bright coats and purple corsages and patent leather shoes. Some had hats like we did, but the coolest had lots of bows, or braids with beads in their hair. Some carried minuscule pocketbooks over their arms. The boys looked good too, in their Sunday suits and ties. We glanced up at Dad. Even though we were dressed up, it didn't seem that we really belonged. But he just started us down the stairs.
When we got down there, Dad pushed Matt and me into the crowd. Cabot caught right up, Luke grabbed her hand. Egg Man walked on the outside, carrying Lucy.
And once you got started, you could see right away why people had done it for years. It was just nice, is all. The way we were all going in the same direction, with parents and children and grandparents all holding hands. And even when somebody was slower in front, nobody passed. But the second time we came full around, Dad had us step out of line.
Then the way he turned to look, we all did, up to the front of the big museum, and looming there, massive and monstrous but not in a bad way there was The Thinker.
We looked at Dad because of Mother to see what we'd do. He told us to climb.
When we got to the top, Matt whispered, Awesome. Because Mother was right. The Thinker was bombed. He was missing half his face, much leg, and some arm. Yet he was still thinking. The bomb hadn't ruined him, it had improved him. You're a better thinker once you can think through a bomb.
Luke said, "Hey, Dad? What happened to him?"
Matt answered, "Dynamite."
Luke said, "Hey, Dad? What's he thinking?"
Matt answered, "He's thinking that someone blew him up with a bomb."
I said, "Why doesn't Mother like him? Because of the bomb?"
Dad didn't answer. But at least Matt didn't either.
Cabot said, "Don't worry about the bomb, everybody. It's still art."
Fact is, nobody was that worried about that part. But Cabot came here a lot, so she probably knew. She had lessons in drawing two times a week at the Cleveland Museum school. In the evenings. Dad took her. Mother didn't like the art lessons. They were downtown.
Dad said, "So tell us the artist, Cab."
We all stood in a half circle like a museum group and nodded.
Cabot said, "He's a sculptor."
Cabot said, "He's French, and he's dead."
"He had his first drawing lesson when he was ten years old. At age fourteen, he entered the Petite Ecole, as distinguished from the more prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts, which wouldn't let him in there. However..."
Enough already. This was all about her. We broke ranks and started circling around.
Until now, I hadn't been thrilled with men statues before. They were usually on a horse, going to war. You had to worry so much for the horse. But I really did like The Thinker. I told Cabot another bomb could go off, and nothing would stop him. He'd think until he was just a heap of stone on the ground.
Cabot said, "But he's bronze."
"That doesn't bother me."
Then we stopped circling and stood there, regrouped around Egg Man. Matt asked him who put the bomb there and Luke asked him why.
After a long silence, during which he appeared to think about it almost as hard as The Thinker himself, Dad shifted Lucy to the other arm. And didn't answer. He just looked us all over, and then looked up the road, toward the car.
And that was it. It made you wonder why he'd brought us here if he didn't have anything to teach us. Even Cabot knew more.
We all stood there, holding our hats if we had them, and then, it was funny, but we all turned together to look back down at the pond. But below us, the paraders no longer looked festive. The sun was gone. It made the whole march look as if it had slowed right down.
"Okay," Egg Man said. "Back to the car."
We all looked around at one another, and all trudged off.
This time I sat up front, between Matt and Dad. Then we drove farther downtown, but only just cruising, and we had to keep asking, Seriously, Dad, in addition to a statue that was bombed, would we now see a river that burned.
But Dad wasn't talking. Though sometimes, like a man on a tour bus, he'd stop in front of big, fancy, gray buildings and announce their names out loud. "Athletic Club." "Union Club." "Terminal Tower." We already knew the buildings, from other Easters, or from children's Christmas parties in these very places, if that's where they were. But we still liked when Dad stopped and announced things, very deep and slow and unnecessary, because it all told you he was joking around.
"Saint John's Cathedral," Dad intoned like a tour man.
The doors flung open and people started streaming out, hordes of them, in a hurry, maybe to go catch the parade at the pond. Waving good-bye to them all was a black preacher in golden robes at the top of the stairs. So maybe that's what reminded me of church that morning and social consciences. You could see the resemblance, is all that I'm saying, and suddenly I was asking, "Hey, Egg Man? Does Clarine have a conscience?"
He glanced down at me with a frown. "Clarine? Of course."
He was coaxing the Buick carefully through the church throng. But after he looked around at the people, he slowly wound up back at me. "Boyce," he said, "you're too smart to ask that."
"No I'm not." And Matt immediately backed me up on it.
Dad shoved the car into park and waited for the people to cross. "But why would you ask such a thing?"
I knew what he was thinking. That I'd asked because Clarine was a black person, and I felt like showing how stupid I was. Except that wasn't the reason I'd asked. I'd really asked because Clarine and I, we were both black sheep. I'd realized it that morning in church. Even so, there was something wrong with asking about Clarine when I was just afraid to ask for myself, and now I was ashamed. I hung my head and admitted, "I might have lapsed."
Dad leaned down closer and said, "What?"
"Never mind. I just can't find my conscience."
Matt laughed, but stopped when Dad snapped, "What's the question? Where's your conscience?"
The way he said it, I was scared.
"Well, is that the problem?"
"Right," I said, pulling the brim of my Easter hat down.
"Do you know what conscience is, or not?"
I didn't answer. I was mortified. Here I'd told a Protestant I'd lapsed.
Dad sat there tapping the steering wheel. Then Matt started drumming the dash, keeping time. Then Dad asked him, kind of quick and sharp, "Can you define conscience for us?"
"Uh, you mean you want, like, a definition?"
Dead silence all around.
Dad sat there tapping the steering wheel so long, I sensed, even with my head down, that now all of the people outside were gone, had already reached the parade at the pond.
Luke whispered to Cabot, "How come no one asked me?"
Dad yanked the Buick out of park, stepped on the gas, and, with a jolt, we took off.
It was like we were starting all over, and already, this was the ride we'd been hoping for all along.
Now he was driving fast and didn't make any announcements about things outside. We raced out to a highway where Lake Erie was, up the ramp, opened up on the road, took another ramp and got off. Matt announced "Fred's Fish Market" in a deep, brief voice, trying to make it sound like a tour man, but he only knew it because he read it from a big sign on stilts, and you could see right through that. Not that we still didn't like it, though. It was a total ruin. A wrecked old restaurant sitting way out at the end of a broken-down pier.
"Do we get to go there?" somebody asked.
Just looking at Fred's Fish Market cheered me up right off. There were sailboats crossing back and forth on the water and there was a long metal barge that bobbed slowly along. Dad swung a right onto the pier. The wooden slats of the dock rumbled under the car as we thundered toward the end. This must be the place he was planning to take us all along. Right? The dirty lake? The source of the river that burns? I turned to check with Cabot. "Are we getting out of the car?"
Egg Man shook his head, Wrong. "But if you like it, Boyce," he said, "then take a brain picture."
I blinked up. "Really? How?"
"Just look at what you see and put it in your head and keep it there. Then, if you study it long enough, and let it develop over time, someday you might know something."
Well fine, but it would be a hell of a lot easier if he'd stop the car. Instead we rounded the end of the pier between Fred's Fish Market and the dock posts at about a hundred miles an hour. Everyone screams. Except Lucy. She laughs.
Two seconds later, back at the entrance to the pier, Dad careened another right. And even though the sun was setting behind us on the lake, and dusk was settling all around, he drove us deeper and deeper into downtown Cleveland.
He sped us past old, abandoned buildings, junkyards and shipping docks, traveling way beyond the point where Mother surely would have said to roll up the windows and lock the doors. He swung quick lefts and fast rights, winding us farther into a maze of streets you began to wonder how he would ever manage to wind us back out of. So deep into those streets, somewhere in there, it seemed we passed a sort of point of no return.
When he finally slowed up to sixty, we were in what looked to be almost a neighborhood. Except there was no grass. There were no yards. Some of the buildings had no doors. Without glass, the windows were blank, like eye sockets without eyes, so, unlike our house, there were no intricate reflections mirroring wind in the trees. But you could tell, there were still people living in there.
Because I'd never seen anything like it, I thought I should take some of those brain pictures Egg Man recommended before. So I tried it. But he hadn't taught me to do it right. Nothing was taking. I saw a bashed up old car showered in broken glass. But as quickly as I saw it, it passed. I saw a man who lay by the road under a mountain of dirty blankets, with a clean white dog in his arms. I saw a boy in a bright pink tee shirt, with nothing to match it, nothing else on, not even pants. They all came and they went. Except when I saw the old lady sitting smack on the sidewalk. She was wearing an Easter hat, but she wasn't wearing any shoes. She must have tried to get dressed up for Easter. But then she must have realized, What's the use, you can't parade without shoes. And you just knew what happened. She just sat down.
I looked at my own shoes, and back out at her. I swore this time I'd take a brain picture, and it might have even happened, maybe not in full living color, but I know I heard a sort of click inside. To test it, I closed my eyes, and she was still there in my mind. But as soon as we rounded the corner, she vanished, and even when I looked at my shoes to remind me, all I could see was just white socks and black shoes, like always before.
Now we were on another street. And this one was different from the others. Here there were three freshly painted white houses, huddled together like hope in the middle of the desolate block. That's when Egg Man finally hit the brakes and the Buick came to a total stop.
It was now as quiet as a church in the car.
We all sat there, eyes glued to our father. All in all, we all already knew, he had taken us far beyond a river that burns.
Then suddenly, without any warning, just like that, Egg Man started telling us things.
"See those three white houses?"
We all nodded. Each of us looked around to see if the others were looking the right way. But you already knew where to look, you only had to follow Dad's eyes.
"Well, they're bothering my conscience."
My eyes shot back from the three houses, to him.
"See, those three houses belong to me. To all of us, really. They were part of Father's estate. Before that, they were part of your great-grandfather's estate. The problem is, we haven't collected rent on those houses in about a hundred years. Nobody would do it because the people who live there are poor. So now I pay the upkeep and I pay the taxes. But in a year or two, that investment might finally pay off. Because a developer is planning to build a highway through here. I'll be able to sell those houses for a lot of money. Actually, for a lot more than they're worth, almost any price I ask."
He stopped, drew a cigarette from his pocket, lit it with the lighter in the dashboard, opened the window, and sent the smoke out.
He was smoking in front of us. He sent it out, casual and long. "And I'd like to do that, I really would. But if I do, what happens?"
Nobody really wanted to say it, the answer was too sad. But Dad said, "Cabot? What happens?"
"I think," she said, not wanting to say it, for sure. "Then the people won't have a house to live in anymore."
"That's right, Cab, they won't. And they can't afford to go somewhere else. They'll end up on the street."
Everybody was all quiet, all leaning forward a little, all staring out. Something like this, the place, the problem, him talking and smoking like he did with Mother or Clarine or his best friend Mr. Carter, had never really happened before in our lives.
"So, Boyce. Why don't you tell us what to do?"
"Me?" I scowled up at him. Ask Matt, he was oldest. Ask Cabot, she was smartest. The other two could talk.
"You." He pulled my hat off and tried to put it in my lap. But it was too big for that, so he handed it off to Matt, who bolted around about holding it like he'd been handed a bomb. But he did keep his mouth shut.
Then Dad said all I had to be was "brutally honest." I didn't have to be a hero. But then he added, "But better let your conscience be your guide."
Yeah, I got it. You knew what he was getting at.
So I looked out at those three white houses. Then I crossed my leg, put my elbow on my knee and my chin in my hand, and tried to think along the lines that The Thinker had.
But in the end, pure thinking let me down. Because all you had to do was stop thinking and look around. Your conscience wasn't in your brain. It wasn't in your stomach either. Or even in your heart. It was easier than that to find it. It was in your eyes.
Matt said, "Do we have this kind of time?"
I looked up at Egg Man. "May I decide in a year or two, please?"
He kind of laughed. "Listen. Say in a year or two, you can't really afford to give assets away. That will make your decision even harder. You can't just have a conscience when it's convenient...." He sort of drifted off. When he snapped back, he said, "But as you say, we do have a year or two to decide." He opened the ashtray in the dashboard, pressed his cigarette out, and looked again at the three white houses with all of us. "Those people in there are old. Poor and old is a bad combination."
I couldn't even look at the three houses after that.
"Hell, our house only cost one dollar. Don't you remember?"
Of course. The memory was my first, and him saying it like that, gentle and everything, that went straight to my heart. "So are you going to do that and give them those three houses for a dollar, Dad?"
Cabot said, "Three dollars."
Dad said, "It's your call."
I pressed my lips together. I could still choose anything I wanted. I didn't have to be a hero. All I had to be was brutally honest. I closed my eyes.
I opened them when Matt slapped my hat in my lap. "I can't do it, Dad."
"Can't give the houses away for a dollar and can't sell them to the development man either. I think we should just leave it the same." Then I added timidly, "And maybe wait for the poor old people to die." There. There was your brutally honest.
Matt said, "Man."
Even Cabot gasped out loud.
Dad said, "Hmmm."
"Maybe we could take a brain picture," I said.
He looked down, distracted. "Huh?"
"You said someday we'd know something."
"Did I?" He stared down at me, I up at him, but for his part, he probably wasn't really looking, or he would have turned away. After winking or something. He twisted the key in the ignition and revved up the car.
That was it? What was he doing? Maybe I knew in that moment what an Egg Man was. How much mysterious power one had. Like fathers, when they were finished with you, they could just start the car.
Without further discussion, without answering questions, simply without elaboration at all, he drove us safely back through the maze of dirty streets that had gotten us there.
At Easter dinner that night, Mother was wearing her new ruby ring with pavé diamonds, an heirloom Dad stashed away when Grandfather died. She had decoded her clues successfully, and on the very first day. So she looked extra sparkling when she took a sip from her water glass. She held it up as if to toast someone special, which turned out to be us. She smiled at Luke. Everyone always smiled at Luke. "Did you see ducks, Lukie?"
Fork in midair, Luke looked as if he didn't know whether he'd been caught in the act, or what. But turns out, he just wasn't listening. "Yes, I like ducks."
Saw ducks, we all wanted to say, but sure didn't.
Mother looked down the table straight to Dad, as if shooting an arrow, but one of those soft, love ones. "And did we see anything else?"
Dad faked a frown, and steered her away as smooth as a Buick.
When Clarine served the Baked Alaska, I asked how you could cook ice cream in the oven and it would still come out like ice cream, and not like a pond.
At first, nobody was interested. I looked up at Mother. But she was helping Lucy so she wouldn't slop meringue all over the white damask tablecloth. So I looked down at Dad. "How, Dad?"
When he answered me, he was really looking at Mother. "Because it's insulated."
But it was one of those things, like conscience, I guess, that even though you might ask, you sort of know what it is in your heart all along. Anyway, nobody answered.
So I looked down at Mother. Then back to Dad. And when he winked at me, I guess I got what the game really was. Rubies weren't the only treasures he'd been hiding from Mother. He had gone and hidden his conscience from her.
Copyright © 2004 by Terry Reed