Set in a small working-class town near the South Jersey shore, Palmers Gate describes 11-year-old Robby Cleff's attempts to understand and befriend the classmate who lives next door. Colleen Gardner is a childlike, virtually silent girl who may or may not be hiding a chilling secret. Sparely written but emotionally charged, the story builds to a powerful, indeed incendiary climax.
|Publisher:||Roaring Brook Press|
|File size:||139 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
About the Author
After some years in publishing, Barry Varela retreated to the relative calm of Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of a picture book scheduled for publication on the Roaring Brook list in 2006.
Barry Varela worked in publishing before moving to Durham, North Carolina, where he became a researcher and writer at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University. In 2006 Roaring Brook Press published his first novel for older readers, Palmers Gate.
Read an Excerpt
By Barry Varela
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2006 Barry Varela
All rights reserved.
They'd been living in Palmers Gate for almost three years when Colleen Lardner moved into the house behind theirs. In those days Robby's mother worked as a legal secretary across the bridge in Atlantic City. She'd leave the house around eight, after packing a sandwich and an apple into a brown-paper bag for him. She wouldn't return until six in the evening.
Because Robby was ten years old, it was decided he was mature enough to take care of himself alone after school. Often he'd throw together some dinner for the two of them — open a can of tomato soup and slap together some ham sandwiches, or pop fish sticks and French fries into the oven. Nothing very complicated. Sometimes the fries were soggy or the soup scalded on the bottom of the pan, but his mom ate what he fixed and always said thanks.
His mother's boss, Mr. Farquar, was a big shot in the chamber of commerce and the Rotarians, and he made her wear a Nixon's the One button around the office. She'd forget to take it off after work and Robby would ask her, over cold leftover chicken or a bowl of beef barley, "Nixon's the one what?"
She'd laugh and sail the button across the room onto the fold-out couch where Robby slept. "Smart-aleck."
On Saturday mornings his mom slept late. Robby would carry the TV from the kitchen counter where it normally sat to the coffee table in the living room. He'd fix himself a bowl of Sugar Crisp and crawl back under the still-warm blanket, enjoying the sweet cold milk more than the cereal itself. Bugs Bunny, Jetsons reruns he'd seen a hundred times before, the Pink Panther, Scooby-Doo.
Around noon his mom would get up and join him on the couch with a cup of coffee. The cartoons would be ending, and they'd watch an old Tarzan movie or a monster movie, with Dracula or the Wolfman or sometimes Godzilla.
Robby would cheer as Godzilla stomped Tokyo flat and his mom rolled her eyes. Robby didn't have anything against Japan — he just thought their army didn't fight fair, using jets and tanks against an animal. So what if the animal was twenty stories tall and could shoot radioactive rays from his mouth? Robby's favorite Godzilla movie was the one in which Godzilla teamed up with Mothra the giant moth and Rodan the pteranodon to beat up an evil space dragon. He knew it was a ridiculous movie, but he liked to see Godzilla get to be the good guy for a change.
Robby's father had moved out when they were living in Florida. Gone to find a better job in Pensacola, he'd said. The better job turned out to be at a funeral parlor, where he worked boxing up folks for delivery either into the earth or into the crematory. He shaved off his mustache, trimmed his sideburns, sold the 1959 Indian-Enfield Hounds Arrow motorcycle he'd been riding since he was a teenager. Wore a black suit and black tie with a silver tie clip every day. Robby's mom had once said she'd fallen for him for his motorcycle. The better job at the funeral parlor turned into a better woman, a better family, a better life — for him anyway. Or it felt that way to Robby. His dad's new wife had a four-year-old daughter he called Sweet Melinda. Robby hadn't seen him since they'd left Jacksonville.
Palmers Gate, New Jersey, the new place they'd come to live, was a bayside town with trimmed lawns and blue hydrangeas and tall, sticky-trunked pines lining the narrow streets. When the wind came in off the water, you could smell the clams and salt and muck of the marsh flats. It wasn't a bad odor. In fact Robby kind of liked it. It reminded him of Jacksonville. Dead fish stink the same way everywhere, his mom said. She also said she may not have the sea in her blood, but she had the smell of the sea in her hair.
Their house was a little two-bedroom stucco ranch painted pale peach. Goblet-shaped planters filled with straggly begonias stood sentry on either side of the narrow concrete stairway that led to the front door. When they moved in, there'd been the hollow-boned skeleton of a metal swingset out back — seats missing, six snapped-off rusty chains dangling. His mom had bought new plastic seats and attached them with nylon ropes to the hooks in the crossbar.
Near the back fence was an old rabbit hutch made of plywood and chicken wire. The hutch was raised up a couple of feet off the ground, on two-by-four legs. Although Robby and his mom didn't keep rabbits, they hadn't gone to the trouble of tearing out the hutch. Sometimes when he was driving her crazy, she threatened to lock him in the hutch and fatten him for slaughter, like Hansel. He knew she was just teasing. That flimsy old chicken wire could never have held him.
Underneath the hutch was a sandy spot that was shady in the summer. Robby liked to dig around under there, cover his feet in the moist sand. Sometimes he'd bury some small item — a quarter or a soldier from his Fort Apache set or a Hot Wheels car — and pretend to lose it. Weeks later he'd find it, a sand-encrusted Pontiac or brown-plastic warrior with hatchet eternally raised. Coming unexpectedly across the lost item felt like discovering some strange secret — a forgotten Egyptian tomb, a message from a long-dead sailor stranded on a desert isle. Something unknowable and uncanny.
Colleen Lardner moved into the house behind his in February of fifth grade. The house had been empty for months after the Crawfords had packed up and fled in the middle of the night. Later he overheard his mom tell her boyfriend that the sheriff had been coming to repossess the Crawfords' brand-new '72 Buick Riviera in the morning.
The house was in bad shape. The screen door in the back dangled crookedly off one hinge and the rusting gutters sagged under the weight of rotting leaves. On the back porch a blue-striped mattress lay next to an old white-enamel stove whose door hung open like the tongue of a winded dog. Scraps of junk were scattered in the yard. Not a thing changed when the Lardners started living there. Tea-colored water continued to seep out of the gutters, streaking the gray board siding. Nothing was fixed up or tidied. Not even the mattress was thrown out.
Mr. Lardner worked in Brochard, twenty miles west down the expressway. Over breakfast Robby could hear his old green two-door Mercury idling in the side yard. The car door would thunk closed and he'd pull out, rear tires spitting gravel behind them. Robby wasn't sure what it was he did over in Brochard. Something at the pipe-fittings factory there.
Robby hardly ever saw Mrs. Lardner. She had curly brown hair and a long, narrow face. Sometimes when he was playing out back, he'd catch a glimpse of her moving around in the kitchen. She always wore a dress, never jeans or pantsuits like the other mothers. When the kitchen window was open, he could hear a radio, or maybe it was the TV, playing inside.
On the weekends, and sometimes at night, Mr. Lardner could be seen smoking on the back porch. He kept a box of safety matches on the top rack of the oven of the old stove, and Robby would watch out the kitchen window as he flicked ashes onto its burners.
From the first day Mr. Thompson introduced Colleen to the class, she was an outsider.
"I'd like everyone to welcome a new student, Colleen Lardner. Colleen moved here last week, from Absecon. Isn't that right, Colleen?"
She nodded wordlessly, her chin jerking down and up quickly. She held her arms tensely at her sides, her hands balled into tight fists, gazing out over the other kids' heads, not daring to look at them. She had large brown eyes and short, straight reddish-brown hair, and she was tall. She was thin, with narrow wrists, and her balled-up hands were small. There was something about her that made her seem breakable. She had pale skin, with light brownish freckles. Robby was old enough to have begun to notice girls, if not to talk with them. Colleen, he decided, was pretty.
After asking everyone to make Colleen feel at home, Mr. Thompson ushered her to an empty desk near the back, on the window side of the room. She sat down stiffly and immediately turned her eyes to the view outside. Three seagulls dipped and stuttered over the blacktop, picking at a bit of orange peel.
"What a freak," Mark Lebeau muttered. Jerry O'Malley snickered quietly. Colleen didn't say a word to anyone, not then and not for the remainder of the day.
It wasn't clear to Robby exactly why she was an outsider. You couldn't put your finger on it. Everyone in the class sensed it immediately, without anyone's having to say anything. Something marked her, from the very start, as different.
Even though she lived in the house behind Robby's, it was a long time before he spoke a single word to her. He'd see her every so often, in the backyard, moving around in the house, just as he'd see her parents. He'd see her sitting cross-legged on her back porch, playing with a Barbie doll, brushing her long red hair out. The yards were separated by a post-and-rail wooden fence whose posts were half rotted away where they were planted in the sandy ground.
On her side of the fence, opposite the Caleffs' rabbit hutch, was an old wooden shed with a peaked tarpaper roof. Robby'd snuck into the shed a couple of days after the Crawfords moved away. It was filled with all kinds of junk — stacks of wood, cans of oil, a cardboard box full of rusty old wrenches. Bolts, clamps, and screws; a disassembled lawnmower engine; a bucket of dried-up Bondo; a gasoline can. He didn't mess with any of it; it didn't belong to him. He'd been curious about what was in there, and now that he knew, he was satisfied.
One Saturday afternoon, a couple of weeks after the Lardners had moved in, Robby was out back tossing a ball around with his mom's boyfriend, Pat Scelsa. Pat was a short, wiry guy with slicked-back black hair and sideburns that came down past his earlobes. He wore sunglasses and had shown Robby how to deal cards off the bottom of the deck so you always got aces in your hand.
Pat was also showing him how to throw a knuckleball. Pat had played second base and left field in high school. Robby's hand wasn't big enough for him to be able to dig his nails into the ball, which you have to be able to do to throw a decent knuckler. The best he could manage was a slowly rotating palmball that didn't knuckle. Some of Pat's tosses were wicked. The ball, sailing through the air without any spin at all, would flutter unpredictably, breaking and dodging. Half the time it would fly right past Robby's outstretched mitt.
Robby had to wear a catcher's mask just to keep his teeth from getting knocked out. Pat would crack up every time he missed one. It was okay, though. Robby understood that he wasn't laughing at him. They both knew Robby could catch a regular pitch no problem.
They'd been playing for half an hour when Pat threw a knuckler by Robby once again. The ball rolled under the fence, into the Lardners' yard, stopping on the far side of their wooden shed. Robby pulled his mask off, hopped the fence rail, and ran to get the ball. When he bent to pick it up, he saw that the shed door was open. Tossing the ball back over the fence to Pat, he went to close the door. He figured the Lardners wouldn't want stray cats inviting themselves in.
As he put his hand on the shed's door, he noticed Colleen, inside, sitting on an upturned galvanized bucket in the dark. The silver crescent lip of the bucket glinted.
"Hey!" he said, surprised. "Scared me. What're you doing?"
Colleen didn't answer. She peered at him, squinting into the light that came in through the door, her brow wrinkled. She blinked, sniffed, wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
He stood looking at her, waiting for her to say something. Even in the dim light of the shed, he could see the flecks of green in the brown of her eyes.
"How long you been in there?"
She shook her head as if to say she didn't know, or that it was none of his business. Her bangs parted in the center of her forehead.
He could see she'd been crying, and he felt embarrassed, whether for her or for him he wasn't sure. "Want the door open?"
"Okay." He let go of the door. "Hey, are you all right?"
Again he waited for a reply, and again she simply stared silently. It was a sunny March day, cool, not cold, though the air inside the dark, dank shed felt chilly. She was trembling a little. She looked away. Robby left her to return to his game of catch with Pat.
They tossed the ball around for a few more minutes, and then Robby's mother called them in for dinner. The Flyers were playing the Bruins at the Spectrum, and he and Pat were going to watch the game together on TV. Robby's mom didn't have much interest in hockey.
Robby didn't say anything about Colleen to Pat or to his mother. He hadn't decided on purpose to keep a secret from them. There were just things you didn't talk to grown-ups about, and Colleen sitting in a shed by herself was one of them. How long she stayed out there, he never knew.
She was like that. It seemed as if you never noticed her till she was right there in front of you, and even then you didn't pay much attention to her. She never spoke in class, and Mr. Thompson seemed content to let her be. He didn't call on her, didn't force her to take part. Oftentimes she didn't go out during recess. He'd let her stay inside, doing schoolwork or drawing in the pink spiral-bound notebook she carried around.
The kids said she was retarded because she never talked. Plus she dressed funny — wore things like high-water brown corduroy pants and button-down shirts that were too small for her. Even Robby knew those pants were out of style and didn't fit, and he wasn't exactly a fashion plate. Some of the girls seemed to feel a little sorry for her and tried to defend her. Barbara Mignona said she was just shy. But none of the girls made friends with her, and most of them, at one time or another, joined in with the boys in their teasing.
Mark Lebeau started calling her "Colleen Lardbutt" and "Lardner the Retardner." Jerry O'Malley would wait until Mr. Thompson was turned to the board and then blow chewed-up paper spitballs through a straw at her while the rest of the class choked back laughter. When the spitballs stuck in her hair, she didn't brush them out. She never told Jerry to stop. She wouldn't even turn in her seat to acknowledge him. Yet she never tattled on him either. Neither did anyone else, not even Barbara Mignona.
Robby didn't tell. He laughed along with his friends. Maybe he didn't laugh as hard as some did. Later, he liked to think he didn't. But maybe he did.
Because Colleen's house was next to his, he felt vaguely that he was somehow linked to her. Almost responsible for her. Not in the sense that it was his duty to protect her. More like it was his fault she was a freak. She lived next to him — why couldn't he do something about her? Worse than feeling responsible for her, he felt like her weirdness was somehow going to rub off on him. Guilt by association.
He wanted her to start acting and dressing normal or else just move away. He didn't want her to infect him.CHAPTER 2
It was several weeks after the day Robby found Colleen in the shed that she spoke her first words to him.
He was underneath the rabbit hutch, playing with a Tonka fire engine and a G.I. Joe he'd had ever since Florida. His father had given them to him for his sixth birthday — the last one he'd been around for. He knew he was too old to still be playing with toy trucks and soldier dolls, but there was no one around to see.
He'd moved out from under the hutch and was making Joe climb up the long extension ladder to reach the upper floors of a burning high-rise. Joe was going to rescue a bunch of beautiful ladies trapped up in the hutch. He'd suffer smoke inhalation but he'd be all right, and the ladies, who would have long ringletty hair and smell like flowers, would be grateful to him and call him a hero and want to take care of him. They'd take turns feeding him soup and putting cool damp cloths on his forehead. Robby liked playing games like that.
A shadow moved across the sand beside him.
"My name's Colleen," she said.
He squinted up at her. "I know that."
She didn't say anything.
"I'm Robby," he said.
"I know. Robby Caleff." She looked at him a long time, expressionless.
Finally he glanced away.
"What're you playing at?"
Excerpted from Palmers Gate by Barry Varela. Copyright © 2006 Barry Varela. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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