After reading The Stranger in honors French, my friend John claimed that God was irrelevant, and cashed in the four-year-old savings bonds he got from his Bar Mitzvah. He bought a 1966 Pontiac GTO from a guy in Auburndale, and left the little plastic Jesus on the dashboard to illustrate his point.
“The human condition is absurd,” he said.
“It is around here,” I agreed.
Besides discussing philosophy, we saw a lot of movies. John had a scam going with the kids who worked at the nearby Chestnut Hill cinema. His summer job was fry cook at Friendly’s in Chestnut Hill. When the kids from the cinema came in to eat, he’d double or triple their order, mounding up the French fries, and stacking extra bacon on the bacon cheeseburgers. In return, they would leave some movie passes under their plates. The waitresses were in on it, too. We fell into a pattern of eating at Friendly’s and sitting through movies we didn’t really want to watch, but did because they were free.
As we drove toward the movies that night, in John’s Pontiac, the woods and big trees off Hammond Pond Parkway reminded me of Mrs. Kensington’s garden. I hadn’t mentioned to him or anyone what I had discovered behind her high brick wall on Arlington Street.
“You smell like French fries,” I said, instead.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything. I thought you might like to know you smell like French fries.”
“I’m not outside all day. I have to actually do something. There’s a lot of pressure on me, you know.”
“Like what? Remembering the ingredients in a BLT?”
“If it wasn’t for my job, we wouldn’t be going to the movies, would we?”
John was right. At lunch, he would have six or seven sandwiches cooking on the grill, and the waitresses would he sticking more and more of those little green order sheets onto the spinning chrome wheel above his grill. John methodically flipped the burgers and shook the waffle-cut fries out of their baskets. He had a long handled spatula that he used to ring a bell on top of the counter when the order was up.
I kept my mouth shut, happy to be tan and free of the Fryolator odor that clung to John, even after he showered.
That summer, I was a tree surgeon’s assistant. My expensive habit of buying collectible cereal boxes had exhausted my small savings. John’s parents made him work because they said he needed structure. My parents begged me to focus on more legitimate issues, like college.
I had a wall of narrow shelves in my room where I kept some of the cheesier boxes on display, like the spooky General Mills trio from the 70’s, Count Chocula, Boo Berry, and Frankenberry. They were good boxes, but not worth what the Wheaties were with Bruce Jenuer, or my boxes of Quisp with the prizes still inside.
I was never as interested in baseball cards or comic books as I was in the brightly colored world of breakfast cereal. Before I was old enough to read the paper in the mornings, I would study the boxes as I lapped up bowl after bowl, longing to find the Honeycomb Hideout, or Cap’n Crunch’s buried treasure.
Last year, on a hunch, I bought a couple of cases of a cereal with Vanessa Williams on the cover. Then the old pictures she did tor Penthouse surfaced, and they took away her Miss America title. The regionally distributed Corn Flakes boxes were now going for $25 each.
I had made the mistake in sixth grade of doing a presentation about my hobby in school. We were supposed to give presentations about our outside interests. Virtually every other kid talked about scouting. Pop Warner football, or brownies. At the last minute, because I didn’t have any other outside interests, I grabbed a shopping bag and filled it with the charming cereal boxes of the early 1970’s I had collected and gave my report. Five years later the kids still called me “Sir Grapefellow.”
Brace Walker, my boss, was a certified Arborist. It was painted on the side of his truck. Bruce never let me work the high stuff in the trees, which he did wearing a belay rope and harness. My job was to pile up the branches he cut and feed them into the orange Asplundh tree chipper. The Asplundh could turn a tree trunk as thick as a telephone pole into mulch in about four seconds. I never got tired of reducing trees into sawdust, piece by piece.
Bruce only cut trees down if there was no way to save them. He could do things like drill in cables to support the branches, or even inject medicine into the trees infested with termites. I had been working for Bruce on Saturdays for more than a month when we went to Mrs. Kensington’s place. She lived on West Newton Hill, and there was a gate on her driveway. Behind a crumbling, ten-foot brick wall I could see the tops of huge beeches, chestnuts, and hemlocks.
Bruce sat at the wheel of his Ford F350, and rubbed his forehead with his stained leather work gloves.
“Do you want to be a tree surgeon when you grow up?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Do you have to go to medical school?”
“OK, wise guy. Is there a possibility, if you flunk out of college or something, and your woman leaves you, and there are no other jobs available, that you would seek employment in this line of work?”
“Well, sure, I guess so.”
“Then I recommend you stay in the truck for a while.”
Brace sighed, and hopped out. He walked through the gate and up the steps to the house. I heard dogs barking, and the door swung open before his extended finger had reached the bell. I tried to see over the huge wall around the property. It extended far down the street. I got out.
Brace was trying to show an old lady with a huge black wig the estimates he worked out on a clipboard. She was thin, and it looked like an overweight cat was draped on her head. Three Airedales were jumping against the screen door, which she held closed with her heel. I started to move up the walk, which sent the dogs into a frenzy, and I stopped in the middle of the path.
Her property extended back to a line of scrub pines maybe a hundred yards away. The high brick wall enclosed the whole property. There was a courtyard behind the house with an empty fountain, and huge beech trees ringed a slate-roofed gazebo. There was a small pond next to an old weeping willow. Fieldstone paths weaved between hedges, and benches were placed here and there. It was like the grounds of some English duke.
“Well, another fine looking assistant for Mr. Walker,” she said.
“Yeah,” Bruce said, “I got a call from his parole officer to see if I’d, you know, give him a chance. He’s been in and out of jails since he was 12.”
“What did he do?”
“Car theft. Bad checks. Bunko.”
“It’s nice of you to give him a job,” Mrs. Kensington said.
“The sad part is, he comes from a good home. Say hi to our new boss for the next week or so, Kenny.”
“Hi Mrs. Kensington. I just want to tell you that. . . .”
“Oh, I trust you, Ken. It’s Bruce you should thank for giving you a break.”
That night a girl we had never seen before tore our tickets as we headed into the movie. She made as if to give John his stub, then pulled her hand back.
“Are you the food guy?” she asked. Her new General Cinema’s employee name tag was mysteriously blank. All the kids that worked there had to wear a name tag, and the red shirt with the goofy projector logo on it, just like John had to wear a paper Friendly’s hat. She had rolled the sleeve up a couple of times, showing lean, lightly muscled arms. It gave her the same defiant look John tried for when he wore the paper hat tipped way back on his head. She also had on baggy, fatigue army pants.
“Maybe,” John said. He was always looking for a set up.
“Do you work lunch tomorrow?”
“Well, I’m coming in.”
“So fire up that grill, tough guy,” she said, and flicked his ticket stub into his chest.
We walked in silence up the plush, red carpeted aisle and into the theater.
“Where did she come from?” John said.
“Not around here, that’s for sure.”
When the movie let out, we cornered Turner, the shrimpy projectionist who also went to our high school.
“Who is she?” John said. “And who told her about the food?”
“What’s her name?” I said, leaning into him a little.
“Jen what?” John and I said at the same time.
Turner looked around, and motioned us through a door into the inner sanctum of the projection booth. It was stuffy, cluttered with gigantic cans of film, and smelled like the dark room in John’s basement.
“She’s the girl from St. Johnsbury.”
In April, the year before, around the same time John and I were taking the SATs, a girl from Dover disappeared while hitchhiking. For four days, the story led the local news. Since she was also a high school junior, and since Dover was only three towns away, everyone talked a lot about it.
“That girl’s in a river somewhere,” John said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Maybe there’s a Ted Bundy guy running around.”
“She’s the only one who’s missing though,” I said.
“Then it was drugs. Definitely drugs,” John concluded.
The newspapers made a big deal about it because she was an honors student and because her parents said she never got rides that way. Our high school responded in a typical fashion, by having an assembly about the dangers of hitchhiking. A beefy Newton cop stood at the podium.
“It may seem like a good way to get somewhere, but it’s really a good way to get in a dangerous situation,” the cop said. Everyone cheered, and the principal, who was also up on the stage, yanked his tie and glared at us.
He cleared his throat, “People who pick up hitchhikers may be using it as an excuse to peddle drugs. . . .” Kids whistled and clapped.
The cop shook his head. He quoted a few FBI statistics, and then added, “If Jennifer Carlton was your sister, I wonder how you’d act,” which was supposed to make us feel guilty.
Before John got the GTO, we tried to hitchhike, but no one would pick us up. We talked about how people were probably scared of us, but I honestly thought it was because we looked lame and desperate.
The story broke nationally when Jen appeared outside St. Johnsbury, Vermont. She walked into an IGA grocery store, and said she had been kidnapped. She eluded her captors by climbing out the window of a gas station rest room, and hiding in the woods.
She told police that two guys in a gray van had pulled her off of Route 16.They were taking her to Canada. Although she was blindfolded, she was able to describe the tattoos the men had on their forearms, Satanic pictures and upside down crosses. They took her to a local hospital where she was treated for dehydration, and abrasions around her wrists. John and I watched her interviewed on the local news.
“It was very uncomfortable, because my hands were tied most of the time,” Jen said. She had long, black hair and far away eyes. She was not enjoying the focus of the camera. “And you were in the van for three days?”
“And how were you treated?”
“OK, I guess.”
“The two men who kidnapped you haven’t been found. Has this experience changed the way the way you feel about society?”
Jen arched her eyebrows at the camera. “I’ve never thought much of society,” she answered.
I had no way of knowing if Jen would show up to eat that afternoon. I figured if I told Bruce my friend was working the grill at Friendly’s, he’d want to eat there. John and I hadn’t said anything more to each other about her, but it was pretty clear to me that something was finally going to happen. It wasn’t just that she had flicked his ticket stub at him. The halls of Newton North High School were filled with girls who would throw things to make a point. Jen was a celebrity. I found myself wondering why she wore those army pants with the big side pockets, if she shoplifted in them, or carried a knife.
Bruce and I slid into a booth, and he flipped open a menu. I told him to go for it and walked back to the grill to talk to John. There were some kids eating from the theater, but Jen wasn’t with them. John had three or four burgers sizzling in front of him, and was peeking under the buns to make sure they didn’t burn.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“You see it, brother,” he answered. Then Jen walked in.
She sat at the counter, acknowledged the two of us with a nod, and then concentrated on tapping the rim of the glass Friendly’s ashtray with her smoke.
“Excuse me a second . . . I have a customer,” John said, and quickly slid down the counter to where she sat, like he was a waitress.
“Hi. Jen, right? What can I get for you?” John asked.
I followed him down the counter and hopped on the stool next to Jen.
“Can I get those two coffees?” I asked.
“What coffees?” John said.
“The two coffees I ordered.”
“Ask your waitress. Your party is seated at a booth.”
“Do I look like I’m at a booth? Come on John, we only have like 20 minutes to eat.”
“OK.” he said. Smoke was rising from the grill and he had to hustle over and move stuff around that was starting to burn.
“How do you like working at the theater?” I asked.
“It’s all right, I guess. You know, free movies. My shrink says I need structure.”
“I work for a tree surgeon. With a tree chipper.”
John plunked two cups down in front of me, and half the coffee sloshed over the rims and into the saucers.
“Drink up,” he said.
Bruce was looking at his watch in the booth, so I had to bring the coffees over and we ordered. Although I couldn’t hear what the two of them were saying, Jen’s raucous laughter made everyone in the restaurant wonder what was going on.
Later, when we were putting the tools away and getting ready to go home, Bruce said, “I suppose you’re pretty busy in the fall.”
“I’m kind of busy,” I said. Honestly, it seemed like the only difference was that John and I looked for indoor places to drink when it got cold.
“Well, I rake in the fall, and run snow plows in the winter. I want you to work for me. Can you run a snowplow?”
“Piece of cake,” I said, slamming the truck’s tailgate closed.
John picked me up that night as usual, and I was immediately suspicious by an unfamiliar odor in his car.
“Do you have a new deodorizer in here?” I asked, half expecting to see a little pine tree hanging from the rear view mirror.
“No,” he said.
“What’s that smell?”
“It might be my Old Spice.”
“You don’t know what Old Spice is?”
“I’ve never smelled it on you, is all.”
“I wear it.”
“My ass. What’s going on?”
“Jen is coming out with us,” John said.
“What do you mean, with “us”? Is this like a date or something?”
“No, it’s not a date. If it was a date, I wouldn’t bring you, would I?”
“Thanks a lot,” I said, “Is there anything else I need to know?”
“Relax. She asked us what we did around here, and I said, “hang out”. She wanted to come. She doesn’t know anyone around here, you know. Just think of something fun to do.”
“Since when are we the Welcome Wagon?” I asked.
I leaned back against the seat. He drove like nothing was any different, elbow hanging out the window, head nodding slightly back and forth with the beat from the radio. He started to tell me about a scene at Friendly’s that day where some younger kids tried the old “Dine and Dash” trick, and had been run down in the parking lot by two waitresses. I was not appreciating it the way I usually did, nor was I boasting about using chain saws or cant hooks to chop up a tree.
“Listen, I know where we can go,” I said.
We picked Jen up at her house in Newtonville. It was an ordinary split level, with a rusted basketball hoop at a crazy angle over the garage. John and I had barely pulled to the curb when Jen slammed the front door and bounded down the steps. She motioned for me to get out, like she wanted to sit in front. I opened the door, and was prepared to hop in the back, when she slid over on the bench seat toward John and patted the seat next to her.
“Let’s drive around redneck style. Who’s the Jesus freak?” she asked, eying the plastic figure glued to the dash.
“John doesn’t believe in God,” I explained.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“Weren’t your parents home?” John asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Well, didn’t they want to, I don’t know. . . .”
“They go way overboard when it comes to trusting me these days,” she said.
It was no problem slipping over the brick wall and into Mrs. Kensington’s garden. We were pretty far from the house, and I knew she never let the dogs roam around by themselves. We crept between the high hedges, and along stone paths lit by moonlight. It was quiet, until we came upon the big, slate-roofed gazebo that rose up next to the pond.
“Holy shit,” Jen said.
“Shh!” I hissed.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said in a whisper.
We went up the stone steps, and sat on the benches that faced the water. The house was probably a hundred yards away, but we still spoke in low voices.
“Kenny, you really work here?” Jen asked. She cupped her match, and kept the glowing tip of her cigarette hidden in her palm. It was the way the soldiers smoked in war movies when they didn’t want some sniper blowing their head off.
“We take care of the trees,” I said.
“Who lives in that house?”
“This old lady.”
Jen had a joint, and we smoked it. We listened to John babble about The Stranger; how this guy Mersault killed an Arab, and felt up his girlfriend at the beach, but remained totally indifferent to everything, even when he was going to be executed.
“It was his philosophy, you see,” John explained.
“How much longer are you going to work here?” Jen asked me.
“We have to get rid of the dead trees. Sometimes we fool around with the tree chipper. Bruce’s wife makes him these meatloaf sandwiches that she thinks he likes, and he throws them in. When it comes out, it looks like someone puked.”
“Gross. So what’s your philosophy?” Jen said, nudging me with the toe of her suede Puma sneaker.
“I feel that breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” 1 said.
“What?” she asked.
“Kenny’s got this cereal thing,” John said.
“You don’t eat cereal?” I asked her.
“I eat cereal,” Jen said. “I like cereal.”
“O. K, then,” I said.
“They call Kenny “Sir Grapefellow”.”
“They used to,” I explained. “In like sixth grade. For only a week. You see, many classic lines of cereals came in two different flavors. The collectible ones, I mean. The ones worth money. For example. Sir Grapefellow and Baron Von Redberry. Quisp and Quake. Count Chocula and Frankenberry.”
“Yeah. I remember those. But how are they worth money?” And why did they call you Sir Grapeface or whatever?”
“He looked a little like the guy on the box,” John said.
“I did not. I happened to be wearing purple the day I brought in some boxes for a presentation, all right? The boxes are what’s worth money. People collect them the way they collect lunch boxes or Barbie dolls. I have a 1962 Frosted Flakes box that’s worth about three hundred bucks.”
“They printed the box wrong. Tony the Tiger appears bloated.” I said.
“How interesting,” Jen said.
Bruce put down the McCullough chain saw, and walked around the east side of the gazebo, the side that faced the lake.
“What the hell is this?” he asked, calling me over. I was terrified he had found some evidence of my nighttime visit.
Set in the stone foundation was a step down to a small, iron door. It was invisible from the rest of the yard. Bruce grabbed the u-shaped handle and tugged it open. The dim sunlight showed ladder rungs dropping down into the darkness. It smelled stale.
“It’s probably where she keeps her husband,” I said.
“It’s a bomb shelter. Look,” he indicated the yellow and black fallout shelter symbol on the back wall. “Lots of families around here put them in in the 50’s. I bet it was a good business.” Bruce leaned on the door to shut it.
“Do you think there’s stuff down there?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. They stocked them with food, water, cots. Everything you need to survive nuclear war. Provided you would want to.”
“It seems like a strange place to have one, though. Aren’t they usually in the basement?”
“Yeah, but look who we’re dealing with, a woman who won’t even let us use her toilet,” Bruce said. “Hey, how’s that girl? How’s the famous Girl From St. Johnsbury?”
“Why do you say it like that?” I asked.
“No offense. I just wonder what she’s like.”
“She’s really nice,” I said.
“Does she ever talk about what happened?” Bruce asked.
“No. She sort of talks about how things affect her, though.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I remember watching the whole thing on TV. She just seemed a little smug when she showed up. Like how she refused to do hardly any interviews.”
“I’d like to see how you’d act if you were tied up in a van for three days,” I said.
“Easy. I’m just telling you how I felt. I’m just being honest.”
“She has no friends. She just moved here.”
“Well, then, it’s nice of you guys to show her around.”
Bruce dropped me off at Friendly’s, and I sat on the curb and waited for John to finish up inside, and hopefully snag us some sandwiches. There was a shrill whistle from across the parking lot. and I saw Jen talking to a guy in a Lincoln. She came over and sat down next to me.
“Who was that?”
“Ralph. He’s the assistant manager at the theater. I call him RAAAALPH,” she said, like she was puking. “He’s trying to get into my pants. He doesn’t even make me sweep.”
“Well, that’s something,” I said.
“Yeah. School’s weird, too. Everyone there is afraid to make me do anything,” Jen said. I knew she was going to Dana Hall, this private girls’ school in Wellesley. They were making her go to summer school, but she hardly attended any classes. Jen’s psychiatrist had given her a note to flash saving she could freak out at any time if she was stressed. The note said something about duress.
“I never go to gym,” she told me.
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
“I’m seriously thinking about quitting the theater, too.”
“Because of Ralph?”
“No. I don’t need the money, either. This guy keeps trying to get my parents to sell him the rights to my story.” “What guy?”
“A TV guy. You know those movie-of-the-week things.”
“For how much?” I asked.
“Kenny! It’s so . . . exploitive. God.”
“Sorry. It’s just that you’re the first person I’ve known that has a story. No one has a story around here.”
“The teachers at Dana Hall treat me like I’m an invalid. I can’t imagine what’s going to happen when the regular school year starts. I bet I can go a whole semester without doing jack shit.”
“You could write a book,” I said.
“You could. About how you were . . . so . . . resourceful.”
“Do you think I’m resourceful, Kenny?”
She lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke out of the side of her mouth. I wondered if she looked the same way before the whole thing happened. It reminded me of this thing Bruce once told me about the guys who came back from Vietnam. He said you could tell who had been in combat because they had this far away look in their eyes he called the “thousand yard stare.”
“You must be. You’re here, right?”
“And not chopped up in some hole in Canada?”
“Jen,” I said.
“That’s what you meant.”
“But it makes me uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for me to think about you being hurt.”
“I wasn’t raped, if that’s what your implying,” Jen said.
“Jesus Christ! Who said anything about rape?”
“I know that’s what you thought. It’s what everybody thought.”
“It’s none of my business one way or the other,” I said.
“Aren’t you curious? Everyone else is. My psychiatrist practically drools when I start talking about being in the van.”
“If you want to talk about it, then . . .
Jen jumped up, “Why don’t you just ask me what happened?”
“It’s too personal. I don’t want to go into it,” she smirked.
John came busting out with a white paper bag full of sandwiches. “Are we hanging in the garden tonight, or what?”
“We found something there today. Let’s bring flashlights,” I said.
We hopped the wall into the garden once it was dark. We had flashlights, and Jen had a faded canvas backpack over her shoulder. I led us to the low iron door of the bomb shelter. It all looked different at night, and the mouth of the tunnel leading down was like climbing into a sewer pipe.
“Wait a second,” John said.
“It only goes down ten feet, and there’s another door,” I explained. I could see the second door when I shined my light down.
“This is like a horror movie,” Jen said.
“There might be rats down there,” John said.
“Or snakes,” Jen said.
“Well, we could just. . . .” I said.
Jen put her flashlight in her teeth, and started down the iron rungs. “See you in hell!”
I followed, and John was right above me.
The bomb shelter was grimy and disappointing, with a couple of built in bunks, and moldy crates and barrels.
“I think I’d rather get nuked than hang around here too long.” 1 said.
“Let’s play a game,” Jen said. She moved some crates around so there was a low table and places to sit. She pulled a candle stub out and lit it with her lighter. John looked at the door and the ladder up to the surface, clearly worried about our oxygen supply.
“You guys play Mexican?” she asked, lining up dice, a bottle of Gordon’s vodka, and a shot glass. In the flickering light, with her long hair, she looked like she was about to perform a magic trick. “You do shots, right?”
John and I had, in fact, played Mexican, which is sometimes called “Bullshit” or “Liar’s Dice.” You have to beat the roll of the guy who went before you, or at least say you did. Two sixes was the highest roll, except for a two and a one, which was “Mexican” and then you could make someone drink. It was an OK game at a party, but 1 didn’t see the point in playing it down here.
“Of course we do,” I said.
“Good. This kid I knew in Dover. went with his family to Russia, and when he came back he had this great way to do shots, because the vodka tastes really bad over there,” she said. Jen took a water bottle out of her backpack and twisted off the lid. She took a shot, and held it in her mouth. Then she took a huge swig of water on top of it, and swallowed it all down.
“Try it,” she said. “All you taste is water.”
We played until the bottle was empty. John had sprawled on the moldy cot in the corner, and Jen was rolling the wax from the candles into little balls and throwing them at me.
“Cut it out,” I said.
“Oh, Kenny,” she said. John was breathing heavily through his nose, comatose, and I wondered about getting home.
I got off the crate, and made my way over to the damp, cinder block wall. I slumped against it, and Jen sat down next to me. She kissed me, her mouth soft, yet an unpleasant combination of cigarette smoke and the medicinal tang of vodka. Her hand was on my chest.
“What’s the matter?” Jen asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I suppose this is about the kidnapping thing. I’m damaged goods.”
“I don’t think that at all,” I said, “I don’t even think you were kidnapped. I think you ran away or something.”
“Like you’re the first person to figure that out,” she said.
I staggered up the ladder, into Mrs. Kensington’s garden. Coming out was like breaking the surface of a deep pond, after trying to touch bottom. It felt good to just suck air into my lungs, and lean against the gazebo.
Jen’s head appeared at the top of the ladder like a jack-in-the-box. “Kenny, come on. Will you at least listen to me?” she asked. “I had my reasons,” she said, as I made my way to the garden wall and Arlington Street. I knew what she would say, that her mom went through her backpack and found pills, or that her dad took away her phone. I kept walking.
“Where are you going? Home to breakfast?” she shouted.
On top of the vodka, and old Friendly’s sandwiches, a bowl of cereal sounded pretty good, but she tried to make it sound like an insult. The streets were quiet and I drifted across town toward my house. I could pick out the sick trees, and the ones that needed pruning as I walked underneath them on the sidewalks.