The Cartographer of Dreamland
by Robert J. Howe
This is me at twelve years old, running for all I'm worth up Classon Avenue,
bookbag under one arm, with Kevin Lester and three other bullies in close pursuit.
They're mostly bigger than me, and the only reason they haven't caught me yet is
because I had a half-block head start from the Nativity School gate.
This isn't just about the atlas now; they want to punish me. I don't want to go
home again minus my bookbag, with torn clothes and another bloody nose.
I look back on this scene and I ask myself where the hell all the adults were? Like
every other time I'd been chased by bullies, or beat up, or robbed of my lunch
money and bus pass, it was on a public street in broad daylight. But in my memory
the streetscape is deserted except for me and my pursuers.
I hear their shoes slapping the pavement behind me and fear makes my knees a
little wobbly. I can't outrun them all the way home. There's an empty, weed-strewn lot on the corner of Quincy Street, and with a gasp of desperation I plunge
off the sidewalk and into last year's dead vegetation, rattling yellow and head-high.
I can't run much further, but maybe I can hide.
I stumble a little on the uneven ground, and thorny vines pull at the legs of my gray
school uniform slacks. My mother will be furious if I tear them, but at the moment
I'm more afraid of being caught by Kevin and his crew.
When I figure I've reached the middle of the lot, I bend over to catch my breath,
trying to gasp for air quietly so I don't give myself away. Probably a vain hope: the
lot isn't that big.
After a minute or two it dawns on me that I don't hear my pursuers. I don't hear
anything in fact, except for birds singing nearby, and the slight movement of the
vegetation in the breeze. There are no traffic sounds, no voices of the other kids
getting out of school, no nothing.
My heart begins to slow down. I realize that everything's much greener here in the
middle of the lot. The March weather, iron gray and chill just a few minutes ago, is
spring-like and warm now. Above my blind of vegetation, the sky is deep blue with
a couple of puffy white clouds.
I'm taking this all in when I notice a pair of dark eyes set deep in a furry brown
face peering out at me from the foliage. I'm a good kid -- I never talk back to
adults or use curse words -- but now, without meaning to, I say "Holy shit!" right
The only "A" I ever got was in Miss Walsh's sixth grade geography class. I loved
Miss Walsh with the intensity and purity of a first schoolboy crush.
I loved her because she was pretty. I loved her because she was kind. She never
raised her voice -- her worst punishment was a frown of disappointment. I loved
her because in her class, I felt smart for the first time ever.
Her class was the only bright spot in my young life. By that time I'd become expert
at telling whether my father was drunk by the sound of his tread on the stairs. We
-- me, my mother and my father -- lived in the second floor apartment of my
grandmother's house. Our apartment was the same as hers, except we had an extra
room, my bedroom, over the garage.
My father was a truck driver ("straight jobs," meaning not tractor trailers), on shortruns between the docks and local warehouses. The job offered him ample time to
play the horses, and endless opportunities for petty thievery. We had three
restaurant-grade blenders that had "fallen off a truck," but ate macaroni and beans
for supper two nights a week.
Every Friday the same drama would play out: my father would come home from
work via Ack's Tavern and give my mother a handful of bills -- some unknown
and unknowable part of his salary -- and he and my mother would get into it.
She would count the bills then say, "Where's the rest of it?"
There would be a back and forth: "Don't worry about it," and "How am I supposed
to pay the rent-electric-butcher?" and "Stop breaking my balls, willya?" until my
father would slam out of the apartment to "go buy cigarettes." Though the candy
store was right on the corner of Myrtle Avenue, my father never returned from
these errands until long after I was asleep.
He was always short of money. I came to dread hearing "let me hold that for you."
Birthday money, the envelope for the collection basket at church, the ten dollars
from Aunt Mary's Christmas card, all went into my father's pocket "until you need
it," never to reappear.
Likewise the watch I "lost" (a first communion present from my grandmother), the
TV set ("it's getting fixed"), and my mother's earrings ("don't ask me -- where'd
you leave them?") disappeared to fund my father's louche lifestyle.
On that March afternoon, it was cold enough so that you could see your breath
outside. Miss Walsh handed back the geography quiz -- a map of the British Isles
on which we had to fill in the names -- and mine not only got an A+, but a gold
star for knowing where the Shetland Islands were. I was sitting there in a happy
trance when I realized Miss Walsh was calling my name.
"Jerry, come up," she said, with a happy little hand gesture.
That I didn't feel so good about. No attention was good attention -- to be praised
by the teacher meant being bullied in the schoolyard later.
Miss Walsh turned me around to face the class. "Because Jerry has a perfect A
average in geography, he wins this month's prize," she said. Every month she gave
away little prizes for things like best map (I won a pencil with a rubber globe on
the eraser end for that one), or most improved spelling.
Miss Walsh then handed me the book she was holding, The Children's Atlas of
People and Places. Little people marched across exotic landscapes on the cover --
a beret-wearing Frenchman near the Eiffel Tower, Peruvian peasants in colorful
shawls in the Andes, and Asian farmers behind bullocks in emerald green paddies.
As I took the book from her, my heart sank. I really wanted it, but I could tell from
the smirks on the faces of Kevin Lester and his friends that the book would end up
destroyed (like my globe pencil), or in someone else's bookbag ten minutes after
school let out.
I went back to my seat amidst halfhearted clapping. For the rest of the afternoon I
took every opportunity to peek at the book's contents, sure I wouldn't get to see
any more of it once school let out. But the more I peeked ("Jerry, please close that
book and pay attention . . ."), the more I wanted to read it and study all the maps
Between geography and religion class, I opened it at random and found myself
looking at a map of Vietnam. The Mekong Delta was in the news a lot then, but
looking at the map and reading the captions, it was the first time I realized that a
delta was where a river spread out to the sea, and that the Mississippi and Mekong
deltas were named after rivers. I was so absorbed that I didn't realize religion class
had started until Sister Agnes swatted me with her horny hand.
At two-forty I thought I had a bit of luck. Just before class was over Sister Agnes
noticed that Kevin had drawn something inside the cover of his missal. Sister
Agnes took him by the hair and went steaming toward the principal's office,
calling over her shoulder to read quietly to ourselves.
When the bell rang at two-fifty, I grabbed my coat from the back of the room and
took the stairs two at a time, hoping to get away before Kevin left the building.
When I got to the stop, though, the bus was just pulling away. Knots formed in my
stomach. Kevin's friends would wait for him inside the schoolyard, probably, but
there was no way to know how long the principal, Sister Gertrude, would detain
Just when the next bus came into sight, Kevin and his toadies came out of the
building. I hoped they hadn't seen me. Rather than wait for the bus, I started
walking away from them up Classon Avenue.
I hadn't gotten very far when I heard Kevin call from behind me. "Hey Jerky!" (his
clever play on my name). "Come back here!"
I hesitated. It was probably smarter to just go back and take my medicine -- if I
made Kevin mad he'd be even meaner. But then it wasn't fair -- I didn't even have
a chance to read most of the atlas yet. I kept walking.
"Are you ignoring me, Jerky?" Kevin yelled. The angry disbelief in his voice
tightened the knots in my stomach. It took an effort of will not to stop and turn
"Man!" Mark Franco, one of Kevin's buddies, said. "You gonna take that?"
I was terrified at defying them -- it was the first time I'd ever done so. I also
wished I could punch stupid Mark Franco in the face.
"Hey!" Kevin yelled. Now I could tell they were walking after me. That's when I
When I say "Holy shit!" the face disappears in a flash of brown fur and rustle of
leaves. I'm frozen by equal parts fear and wonder. What was that? Too small to be
a bear (I think), and anyway there aren't any bears in Brooklyn. I don't know for
sure if there are raccoons in the city, but it didn't have a bandit's mask, and it was
the wrong color.
Kevin and his crew all are forgotten. The plants around me don't look anything
like the weeds I'm familiar with.
There's a small clearing just ahead of me, and I pick up my bookbag and press
along. The vacant lot has to be larger than I thought. I know -- I think -- I'm
heading northeast into it, since I entered it at Quincy Street on the south and
Classon Avenue on the west. The sun is out, and that's another weird thing: it's not
where it should be in the sky -- it seems like morning.
Everything here is green, like it's summer, and the air smells sweet. There's a
carpet of dead leaves on the path -- red and yellow and orange. I go a little further
and I'm amid a copse of trees -- not grown-up weeds, but actual trees taller than
buildings. Some look familiar, like maples or evergreens, but some are trees that
I'm sure I've never seen before, including one that has three-lobed leaves like
oversized shamrocks. The leaves are deep green above and pale, almost yellow,
underneath, and they flash like a school of fish in the light breeze.
The weirdness is getting to me now, like a kind of white noise in my brain. I pluck
one of the leaves and put it in my bookbag, flat between two pages in my
composition book. On the way to the street I walk right into a thorny vine, which
leaves a nice four or five-inch scratch on my face.
I'm on Classon, just crossing Greene Avenue, when I realize that it's getting dark.
My watch says it's almost a quarter to six -- I couldn't have been in the lot that
long. My mother is going to kill me.
"I've never seen one like this," Miss Walsh said, looking at my leaf on Monday.
I'd spent the weekend at the Grand Army Plaza library, looking through botany
books and field guides to identify the leaf and the tree it came from. There was
nothing even close.
"Where did you get this from?"
"The lot down the street," I said. "It was from a really big tree."
"Which lot?" She looked perplexed, "The one here on Classon Avenue?"
I nodded. The slight tone of skepticism in her voice made me glad I didn't mention
the animal I'd glimpsed.
She looked at the leaf again. "Do you mind if I hold onto it for a day or so?"
"No," I shook my head. I really didn't mind -- unlike my father, I knew Miss
Walsh wouldn't say she'd give it back unless she meant it.
"Okay," she carefully placed the leaf inside the front of her grade book and closed
the cover. "I'll look it up this week."
Excitement over the lot had almost eclipsed my fear of Kevin and his buddies,
who'd had the whole weekend to work themselves up. All day they'd shot me dirty
looks -- and spitballs -- when the teachers weren't looking. When we'd filed
down for lunch, Kevin had caught me in the stairwell and hissed in my ear "After
school, pussy!" while he dug his knuckles into my back.
Now that only religion class stood between me and Kevin's little band of
scumbags, I wasn't feeling so good. I thought about telling Sister Agnes that I was
sick, but they might call my mother to get me, which she wouldn't like.
Sister Agnes was late, which gave me more time to concentrate on the knots in my
stomach. The thought flashed in my mind, "I could leave." I had never cut school
before. I would get in trouble.
I could leave. I didn't want to go to the back of the room to get my coat -- I'd have
to walk past Kevin -- but I was wearing my sweater, and it was warmer out than
the day before.
Suddenly I was on my feet. I held by bookbag in one hand and walked out the door
without looking back. If anyone noticed, they probably thought I was going to the
In the hallway I could hear Sister Agnes coming up the stairs, her footsteps heavy
on the steel treads. I dashed around the corner, past the other sixth-grade
classroom, and into the back stairwell, careful not to let the heavy door slam
On the ground floor, I felt conspicuous walking by myself through the lunchroom,
but Mrs. LaVeccia, the elderly teacher's aide, hardly noticed me as I went out the
Once I was on the street I realized I couldn't go home -- my mother would ask me
a lot of pointed questions, and she'd check with the school. I headed to the empty
As soon as I was past the raspy perimeter of weeds, there was that sudden rise in
temperature again, and the absence of street noise.
As before, the air smelled green and sweet. I followed the path to the shamrock
tree. There were more birds this time, brightly colored, like parrots, in the upper
branches of the trees. Something about them looked different, but I couldn't put
my finger on what it was.
Again the sun was in the wrong place in the sky -- without the fear of Kevin after
me, this struck me as deeply strange.
Still, it was hard to feel bad -- even with punishment for cutting class hanging
over my head. It was a green oasis. It was a mental relief just to have space around
"What are you doing in there?" my father would roar through the bathroom door
whenever I was in there "too long." I was always in there because walking on
eggshells in that house gave me a bad nervous stomach. He would rattle the knob,
making my nervous stomach even worse.
There wasn't a knob on the door to my room. I'd locked it one day to read a
biography of Sir Richard Burton on my bed. I fell asleep in East Africa on Burton's
expedition to find the source of the Nile. I woke disoriented to the crashing sound
of my father breaking in the door because I hadn't responded quickly enough to his
"Why the hell do you have to lock the door?!" he yelled, his red face a few inches
I didn't know. At twelve, I couldn't have put my need for privacy, for some space,
into words. Virginia Woolf was 47 when she wrote A Room of One's Own. I loved
Burton's Africa not just because it was exotic, but because it seemed so empty.
In the lot, I sat down and took out my notebook and pencil. After thinking about it
for a few minutes, I started making a list of all the things that were wrong. The
sun's position. The different weather. The shamrock tree. The birds. What else?
There was no litter: not one coke bottle or hubcap or cigarette butt. Like no one
else came in here before. How big was the lot? It was only one block -- though a
long one -- from Classon to Franklin Avenue, wasn't it?
The path stopped at the shamrock tree. The lot couldn't go on much more beyond
that. I left my bookbag and things at the base of the tree and headed directly away
from the way I'd come.
It didn't take me long to realize that the ground was sloping upward, and that this
was more than just a vacant lot. I passed more unfamiliar trees, and the
undergrowth changed from grass to patches of ground-hugging plants like ivy,
alternating with clumps of dark evergreen bushes hung with violet berries. There
were spindly plants with whitish leaves, little blue flowers that nestled close to the
ground, and in the leaf litter under the trees, several kinds of mushrooms that
varied in color from bright yellow to almost blood-colored.
As I walked further, there were more trees in dense copses, and outcroppings of
rock poking through the ground cover. The birdsong was louder and more varied
now, and it took me a while to realize that I was hearing another sound beneath it
-- the rush of water.
When I came to the top of a small ridge, I could see the water -- a glint of blue
through the trees. This was too much. I could see the way I'd come, but now I was
afraid of getting lost.
I looked at my watch, but it had stopped. That was a pain in the ass. I'd needed to
know what time to head home so I wouldn't get in trouble. Reluctantly, I headed
back. Aside from being nervous about the time, I wanted to come back to the lot
when I had a whole day to explore.
It was dark when I stepped out of the lot. My mother was going to kill me. I looked
at my watch from force of habit, and it said 7:15; in the lot it had been stopped at2:03. None of that made sense.
I jogged all the way home, too anxious to wait for a bus. My mother threw open
the apartment door when she heard me on the stairs.
"Where the hell were you?!" she yelled as soon as she saw me.
I had made up an excuse about going to the library after school, but under my
mother's angry glare, my head filled with white noise and I couldn't say anything.
"Get in here," she said, pulling me into the kitchen. My father was at the table,
smoking an unfiltered Camel and looking put out: my disappearance had disrupted
his evening routine.
"Where'd you go?" he said.
My mother waved away his question before I could answer. "School called, they
said you left before religion," she said. "Where were you?"
"The library," I stammered.
"Why the hell didn't you call?" my father said petulantly.
My mother ignored him. "Why did you leave school?"
"Some kids were after me."
"Some kids? Who?"
Reluctantly I told her about Kevin and the threat in the stairwell.
"Why didn't you tell the teacher?" my mother asked.
"You gotta learn to stand up for yourself," my father said. "You gotta whack one
of these mutts if they come after you."
A refrain I'd heard before.
"I asked you a question," my mother said.
"They wouldn't do anything."
"Oh they damn well will do something." My mother took her plastic-covered
phonebook from the junk drawer and opened it to a list of numbers in red ink
inside the cover.
She dialed with angry, circular zings. When someone picked up, my mother said in
her phone voice, "May I speak to Sister Gertrude, please? This is Mrs. O'Grady."
Pause. "Yes, a pupil in the sixth grade, Jerry."
My heart sank.
My mother outlined the problem to Sister Gertrude with elaborate politeness and
elocution as phony as a cake in a bakery window. There was a brief conversation,
then my mother hung up after offering the principal her brittle thanks, and
assurances that she would be there after school the next day.
Through the whole performance my father just sat there, smoking and staring into
The prospect of the meeting in the principal's office had me running to the
bathroom all day. When I didn't feel as though I was about to shit my pants, I felt
At two-thirty Sister Gertrude's secretary, a cheerful, elderly woman with a
dowager's hump, knocked on the classroom door to collect me and Kevin.
The first hint I had of what was in store was when I glanced at Kevin's taut, sweaty
face. Lost as I was in my own fears, the misery in Kevin's demeanor all day hadn't
My mother and Kevin's father sat in straight backed wooden chairs opposite the
principal's scarred desk, their faces like that of boxers squaring off before a match.
Kevin and I weren't invited to sit.
"Jerry, Sister Agnes said you left school yesterday before her class," the principal
said. "Is that true?"
"Yes Sister," I muttered into my collar.
"Speak up!" my mother snapped, "And look at people when they talk to you."
"Yes Sister," I dutifully repeated, looking up, if only as far as the wooden cross
that hung on the front her habit.
"Why did you leave school?" she asked.
The last thing I wanted to do was rat on Kevin -- I was still afraid he was going to
"I don't know," I said, shrugging a little.
"What?!" my mother yelled, oblivious to Sister Gertrude's disapproving look.
"Tell her what you told me yesterday!"
Caught between a rock and a loud place, I folded. "I was afraid Kevin was going to
beat me up."
"Why did you think that?" Sister Gertrude asked.
"He told me he was going to, on the way to lunch."
Kevin's father turned to his son. He wasn't a big man, and his voice wasn't loud,
but he spoke with a scary intensity. "Is he telling the truth?"
"I was just kidding," Kevin said, not looking his father in the eye.
Kidding?! Before I could object, though, before I could think, Kevin's father
slapped his son's face so hard that sweat flew off Kevin and onto me.
Kevin was rocked by the blow, but he didn't cry out, though his eyes watered up
"Mr. Lester!" Sister Gertrude said, slapping her hands down on the desktop, "That
will be enough!"
"Don't tell me how to discipline my kid," he said to the principal with the same
quiet intensity. He turned back to Kevin, whose face was bright red where he'd
"Say you're sorry."
"I'm sorry," Kevin said quietly, staring at his father's feet.
"To him," his father said ominously, nodding at me with a slightly bristly chin.
"I'm sorry," Kevin said, facing me with eyes still downcast.
I was frozen to the spot, mute. Even my mother had to clear her throat before she
could get a word out.
"Shake hands," she said.
"It's okay," I said, shaking his moist palm. Kevin almost met my eyes, and the
pathetically terrified expression on his face haunts me to this day.
From that day on, Kevin avoided me. Eventually, without his goading, the others
lost interest in the chase. Relieved of my fear, I started to notice Kevin -- or things
about him that had always been there, but that I'd ignored to concentrate on
survival. Maslow's pyramid, and all.
When he wasn't teasing some other kid -- that had stopped pretty abruptly after
our little meeting -- Kevin's eyes were in constant motion, scanning the
schoolyard, or the street, or even the classroom. He bit his fingernails raw, and he
always wore long-sleeved shirts. He was a nervous kid. My relief at not being his
target anymore kept me away from him.
For weeks I couldn't go to the lot, or anywhere else by myself. My mother took me
to and from school, making it clear with scowls and irritated sighs just what a
burden I was.
I often asked Miss Walsh about the leaf I'd brought her, but it became obvious that
my enthusiasm was wearing on her, as her responses on the subject became more
vague and terse. I felt like I'd done something wrong, but I wasn't sure what.
Summer finally came, and even my mother's appetite for martyrdom had its limits.
Also, right at the end of the school year, my father had a big fight with his boss and
"quit" the company. His presence around the house soon required my mother's
undivided attention, and by the beginning of July I was off the leash.
I had been planning my expedition all along. My cousin Jimmy's cast-off backpack
held my pocketknife, notebook, pencils and sharpener, Fig Newtons, a compass, an
aluminum canteen from the army-navy store, and in a flash of inspiration, a roll of
orange plastic tape of the kind used to mark off construction sites (something else
that fell off a truck).
From the outside, the lot appeared even more weedy and overgrown. By the time I
worked my way to the shamrock tree, I was sweaty and smeared with plant sap and
After I wiped my face and had a few sips of metallic-tasting water, I broke out the
roll of orange tape and started cutting off foot-long strips. When I had about twenty
of them, I stuffed everything back in my knapsack and headed up the hill.
As usual the sun was in the southeast, just over the trees, and the sky was a hard
blue with a few patches of snow-white clouds. The birds were out like crazy, and
insects hummed all around me. A bright yellow grasshopper jumped off a stalk
right in front of my nose, scaring the bejesus out of me.
The wood was thick with herb smells and dappled green sunlight under the trees. I
stopped about every fifty paces or so and tied one of my plastic strips to a branch
or a bush at eye level, looking back to fix the position of the previous strip in my
mind. Every fifth stop I'd take a compass bearing back along my line of march and
write it down.
I wanted to time my walk, but again my watch had frozen. Though clouds moved
across the sky high and silent, the sun stayed where it was. I was glad for the shade
of the increasing number of trees. And what trees they were: some with long, thin
leaves that trailed down to the ground, and others with silvery bark and round,
copper-colored leaves that flashed like mirrors in the breeze. Trees with strange
fruits that looked like wrinkled purple tennis balls, and others that could almost be
miniature palm trees, except the fronds were puffy and covered in fine white hairs.
I had looked through a lot of books that first weekend after discovering the
shamrock tree, and more since -- field guides, botany books, and dozens of
Natural History and National Geographic magazines. Everywhere I looked in the
lot, there were strange plants that I was sure existed nowhere else in the world. It
wasn't just that I hadn't seen these particular plants and trees in the reference
stacks -- I hadn't seen anything that looked even remotely related to the greenery
When I reached the water, a broad, slow-moving river about as wide as six lanes of
traffic and heavily wooded on its far side, I was stopped in my tracks. I stood there
for five minutes, taking it all in.
I didn't have the vocabulary then to describe what I felt -- a feeling that had been
building in me since the first time I set foot across the lot's border. Looking back I
realize it was something akin to religious awe (if you use the word "religious"
loosely; I felt much the same thing a few years later when I first saw Mary
Wisniewski with her shirt off).
I was a Brooklyn kid. I had been outside of the city once, when I was very young,
to my aunt's bungalow outside Ellenville, New York -- a stay I recalled chiefly for
the pervasive smell of mildew, and being crammed on a fold-away bed with three
But I loved the outdoors. I read every copy of Field & Stream at the library, and all
of Tom Brown's books on woodcraft. I knew, in theory, how to survive in a
blizzard, build a fire in the rain, and navigate by compass. And I had a good sense
of direction, which is no more than just paying attention to your surroundings, I
think -- a survival skill I'd had to master on the street for other reasons. On our
infrequent trips to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, my mother
would reliably get turned around and ask me which way was the carousel or the
This was the first time I was alone in the outdoors with freedom to roam. There
was river and forest as far as I could see in every direction. Birds swooped and
called over the water, and the air was dense and heady with botanical smells. It was
like being in a green church.
I ate some Fig Newtons and drank more water, then I drew and drew: trees, the
river, the shape of the hills, the birds wheeling over the water (they had teeth, I
saw, when one lighted on a nearby branch). I drew until my hand cramped.
I checked my stopped wristwatch from force of habit, then the position of the sun.
Still in the same place. I didn't want to leave -- I wanted to cross the river. I
wanted to see everything. But I knew if I screwed up again I'd be under house
arrest all summer -- a thought even less appealing because of the constant state of
tension between my mother and father.
I packed up my supplies and headed back along the trail I'd blazed. I hardly needed
the orange tape: The direction back to the lot's entrance seemed as obvious to me
as a highway.
Close to the edge of the lot, a tree with fluffy bark caught my eye. When I got
closer, I could see that the bark was actually shredded in strips from a height of
about ten feet or so down. It wasn't until I took in the strong animal stink that I
realized I was looking at claw marks.
I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Whatever had made those
marks was big, and had sharp claws. I thought of the little pocketknife in my
knapsack: the three-inch blade would be useless.
I crossed the rest of the distance to the lot's edge, ears straining, trying to look in
every direction at once. I was glad it was still daylight when I stepped onto Classon
Avenue -- walking home in the dark would have freaked me out.
It was just as well that I had an escape that summer. Potentially lethal animals
didn't deter me from going to the lot every day, rain or shine. I knew something
about evading predators, after all, and nothing could be worse than being held
hostage to the escalating hostilities between my mother and father.
My father said he was looking for work. What that meant was that he'd leave the
house sometime after lunch, and return after my bedtime, reeking of booze and C.
Howard's violet chewing gum, which was supposed to cover his alcohol breath,
but instead only broadcast it into the room before he arrived.
The arguments started when my father woke, and continued until he slammed out
of the house with my mother yelling "You won't find any jobs at the bar!" at his
Once I woke in the middle of the night to my mother's screams and the sound of
breaking furniture. No one called the police, of course, and in those days it was
doubtful the police would do anything but drive my father around the block, unless
he was drunk enough to take a poke at one of them.
I became an expert in walking small, even moreso than before, to avoid setting one
or both of them off. When my Aunt Mary called to find out if I'd gotten my
birthday card and check, I said yes, rather than give my mother cause to lay into
my father about it.
Away from the house, I could breathe. As my confidence grew, I roamed further
and further afield. I was always alert for animal signs, of which there were plenty. I
would occasionally see furred shapes receding ahead of me into the wood, and
once something scaly and big rushed by me close aboard like a subway train. I
could stand in one big footprint with both feet and leave room all around the edges
of my Keds. That encounter left me shaking, but nothing pursued me nor disturbed
I knew from the field guides that you weren't supposed to surprise animals,
especially not big ones. In bear country you were supposed to carry a bell on your
backpack to make sure you didn't startle an eight-hundred-pound grizzly. But there
were only a very few times, besides the first one, that I actually surprised any
Years later I learned about ecosystems, and why apex predators are necessarily thin
on the ground. But even as a kid, I started to notice that in accounts of explorers in
wild jungles or pre-colonial America, encounters with big animals, though
dramatic, were few and far between.
Birds I saw all the time -- including one with a fast, penetrating call that I named
the stiletto bird for its needle teeth. And lizards and fish and small, furry tree-climbers that were like reddish-brown squirrels, but with bigger heads and no tails.
There were rabbits, almost (they did have tails, and moved almost like little
kangaroos), and insects in the zillions. There was something I started calling the
maxipede, which was about a yard long and had a head the size of a baseball.
I never saw a snake, or a frog or a turtle, but down near the water there were furless
animals the size of rats with mottled green skin that lived in holes in the bank.
I started drawing maps as I explored, and it occurred to me that I had to label
things to make any sense of my geography. The river became Down River, because
I thought of it as flowing down from the hills to the northeast. It had tributaries like
the Little Pinky and the Gumbo, where the soft clay bank sucked the sneakers right
off my feet. The hills just on the far side of the spot where I'd first encountered the
river became the Camelback Range.
At first I thought of the whole place just as "the lot," but it wasn't long before I
was calling it Dreamland in my head, though it seemed more real to me than the
streets. Maybe because I needed it to be so.
I crossed the river, finding fords at gravel shoals and at places where sandstone
vees channeled the current deep and fast, but narrow enough for a felled tree to
span its width. I climbed trees to draw maps, and worked out crude tricks for
myself to estimate distances.
Upstream from the place I first saw the river was a deep, cold lake (Cloud Lake,
for the way it reflected the sky like a blue mirror), in which swam something that,
from my one brief glimpse of it, I thought must be related to the Loch Ness
I got good at estimating how much time had passed in the real world, and almost as
good at estimating how long I could stay away from the house without provoking
concern or anger. I was growing tan and strong and I wasn't bothering my parents
-- that was enough. Meanwhile I filled composition books with notes, maps and
drawings, and began developing an understanding of geography and terrain thatyou could never get from a book.
I went through one box of pencils, then another and another, alternating between
making maps and drawing the landscape and wildlife. I took a job on Sunday
mornings, putting together newspapers at the candy store on Myrtle Avenue. I
hated the time it took away from my explorations, but I was able to take my pay in
drawing pencils and cheap pads and notebooks -- things that my father would
neither notice nor be able to pawn.
It wasn't just the empty space that appealed to me. There were no straight lines in
Dreamland. In the real world, what's fashionable to call the "built environment"
nowadays, the straight line and the 90-degree angle rule your line of sight. It's a
visual prison that you don't know you're in until someone opens the cell door one
day, and you step into a world without edges.
I never got tired, head-tired, of drawing in Dreamland the way I did in the real
world. My hands would cramp, and my eyes would get heavy, but I never lost the
thrill of getting it exactly right: the meander of a stream across a grassy plain, of
the way a line of hills humped across the horizon like tree-clad giants bent to some
megalithic toil. From the tops of trees and mountains I could capture the face of the
landscape. I pushed myself to see what was beyond the next treeline, over the next
There were always blank spaces at the edge of the map. On those warm, timber-ry
days I found myself in the thrill of discovery. I was in the top third of a tall, tall
evergreen -- if the type had a name in the real world I didn't know it -- just below
the point where the branches would bend or break under my weight. The sun
shown down from the 10 o'clock position as usual, and there was an east wind high
aloft, sending fleecy brigantines racing across the sky. The patches of sun and
shadow moving over the ground revealed details of the landscape like god's x-ray
machine, and I mapped the details with a fast hand, anxious to capture every bump
of elevation and riparian contour.
September, and the seventh grade, arrived as a grim surprise. One day I was
fording a tributary of the Down, the next I was following my mother through the
din of the A&S Department Store on Fulton Street, dutifully trying on uniform
pants and white shirts for school.
Though I'd grown taller and broader over my summer of exploring, I occasioned
no special notice from my teachers nor classmates, maybe because my mother
bought all my clothes a size too big. "You'll grow into them."
I returned to school with the dread of an escaped convict. Miss Walsh had left --
to get married, the girls said. Though I'd long accepted that I wasn't going to get
an answer back about the shamrock leaf, I still felt a pang that she never mentioned
it, or said goodbye.
Geography was replaced in the seventh grade by the history of New York state,
taught in a monotone by a new teacher, Mrs. Verderami. I'm sure something
interesting had happened since Henry Hudson sailed upriver in 1609, but it wasn't
in our textbook, a 600-page murder weapon titled The Empire State.
The only bright spot was art class. Seventh graders could take either art or music
on Wednesday afternoons. I was placed in art, not because anyone consulted me
about my preferences, but because my last name was in the bottom half of the
alphabet. A lucky break.
Art was taught by Father Clement, a tall, bald, potbellied priest who, instead of
clerical garb, wore a black turtleneck and jeans to class.
Art, at least the way Father Clem taught it, was the first class in which the students
were supposed to have ideas. And mirable dictu, he took our ideas seriously. The
first ten minutes of each class was a demonstration of some technique --
perspective or shading or foreshortening -- then we'd practice the techniques on
objects in the room. As the weeks went on we incorporated what we'd learned into
pencil sketches and pastels from memory, alternating with exercises in which we
copied pictures, or details from pictures, that Father Clem hung on the blackboard.
I liked art. It was the first thing I'd ever done in school that I could really lose
myself in. I'd look up at the end of every class, surprised that it was time to go
already. Father Clem said I was good at it -- though I could already tell that my
drawings were better than my classmates' work. I also eased my frustration at not
being able to spend as much time exploring Dreamland by recreating its hills and
woods during free-drawing time.
Then, in the first week of November, Father Clem hung a print of Guardi's
Fantastic Landscape in the front of the room. I must have stared at that picture for
ten straight minutes without moving a muscle.
"Really speaks to you, huh?" Father Clem said to me when he came up behind me
and saw that I hadn't made a mark on my sketchpad yet.
"Uh-huh," I nodded.
"The originals are oil on canvas -- there are three of them, actually, different
landscapes -- they're in the Metropolitan Museum in the city," he said. "You
should get your parents to take you."
That almost made me laugh. I should get my parents to buy me a sailboat and a
pony, too. I couldn't tell Father Clem the real reason the picture was so riveting: it
was Dreamland. Guardi had been there, he had to have been there. Though I'd
never seen so much as one stone piled upon another in Dreamland, I recognized
Guardi's scene. I hadn't been to that exact spot, but I was certain that Fantastic
Landscape was a rendering of someplace in Dreamland. The feel of it was too
It was both exciting and scary to know someone else had been there. I'd gotten
comfortable with the idea that Dreamland was my own private preserve, and while
Guardi had obviously loved the place as I did, it worried me that anyone else could
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving when I came home for dinner and found my
father just getting off the phone. He gave me a curious look when I came in the
"That was your teacher," he said.
Instant knot in my stomach. It was never a good thing when a teacher called your
"From last year, the geography teacher," he said.
"Yeah, she changed her name." My father looked intently at me. "She said you
gave her a plant that you found in some lot?"
"A leaf," I shrugged, trying to downplay it. "That was a while ago. What did she
"What lot was you in?"
My stomach gave another twist. "Near school."
"Where near school?"
"On Quincy," I said. Was he going to tell me I couldn't go there anymore? Despite
not wanting to pique his curiosity, I asked, "What did she say?"
"Never mind," he said, raising his voice. "Concentrate on your schoolwork. Never
mind the lot."
My father only brought up schoolwork when he wanted to change the subject of a
conversation. I wasn't sure he knew what grade I was in.
"Don't say nothing to your mother about this," was all he told me.
The subject of the lot didn't come up again, and for a while I forgot about the
conversation. I could only visit Dreamland a few times in the next month, and the
visits were more of a delight than usual because of the contrast with the raw
December weather outside.
I had been looking forward to Christmas vacation -- school was closed between
the 23rd and January 6th. Aunt Mary had finally figured out she needed to send me
gifts my father couldn't spend or sell, and sent a box of Venus colored pencils and
several sketch pads for Christmas. On December 26th, excited to use my new
supplies, I headed for the lot.
I could see the fence from two blocks away, and I hurried the distance with my
heart pounding in my chest. The scene inside the chain link perimeter was as bad
as anything I could have imagined. Nothing was left standing in the lot -- it was
just a block-long rectangle of brown, scraped-bare earth, seeded here and there
with some rocks. Not one piece of greenery survived.
I went to the double gate in the fence and found enough play in the padlocked
chain that I could squeeze through. I walked every inch of the lot in a desperate
fog, hoping by some miracle for a way into Dreamland.
I don't know how long I stood there, heartsick. Finally some fat guy in a hardhat
pulled up in a step van outside the gate and yelled at me.
"Hey, get outta there!" he said, squeezing himself out of the driver's seat. He
unlocked the gate and gestured to me. "Let's go, let's go . . ."
I trudged out. "What are they putting here?"
The fat guy shrugged. "Who knows? City took it over for back taxes. Probably stay
like this for another twenty years."
By the time I got home my father was already off on his daily rounds. If my mother
noticed my foul mood, she said nothing about it, and after dinner I flopped into bed
with my clothes on.
I woke up sweaty in the middle of the night, and when I got up to undress I saw the
kitchen light on. My father was sitting at the table, squinting at the Post the way he
did when he was drunk.
"What did Miss Walsh say when she called?" I asked him.
He didn't look up from the paper. "Who?"
"My teacher from last year, when she called," I said with exaggerated patience.
"What'd she say about the leaf?"
"Oh, yeah," my father said, dismissively waving his hand. "She said some guy she
showed it to thought it might be from a new kind of tree, but when they went back
there nobody found nuthin'."
"When who went back there?" I asked.
"Guy I know, thought maybe there was some money in it if they bought the lot.
Turned out to be nuthin' there."
"What do you mean?"
"It's just a lot," my father said. "The city owns it."
"What was he going to do? Your friend?"
"See who owned it, make them a deal. You can't deal with the city though.
Anyway, they didn't find no tree there."
So that was it. My father saw an angle and brought it to some mob wannabee
buddy of his. Somehow their interest had poked the bureaucracy to life long
enough to bulldoze the lot and put a fence around it.
"Great, just great," I said.
My father looked up from his paper, squinting at me through a haze of cigarette
smoke and alcohol. "What?" His conversation, a little blurry and distracted to that
point, became dangerously sharp at the slightest hint of criticism. I could hear the
thin ice cracking in the flat tone of that one syllable.
"You're so stupid!"
His face flushed an even deeper red, and he pushed away from the table, but I was
too mad to care.
"The whole thing's gone!" I yelled. "They tore it all down! Because you told your
My father was on his feet, toppling the chair over as he got up. "You watch your
damn mouth," he said slurrily.
I should've shut up, but I was too full of bitter rage.
"You screwed it all up," I said, shocking myself with even this mild profanity.
"Your and your scumbag friend! What did you think --"
But that was all I got out. My father slapped me just as my mother came into the
kitchen, woken by all the shouting.
"Stop it!" my mother yelled at him, "What the hell is wrong with you?!"
"Don't you start," he said to her. "He has a smart mouth, your son."
My face was burning, more from humiliation than the slap. I was suddenly caught
between my own pain and rage, and the fear that a fight between my parents would
"Never mind," I said. "I'm going to bed."
"What's going on?" my mother said, grabbing me by my arm. "Why'd he hit you?"
I couldn't think of anything that wouldn't make things worse.
"He better learn to watch his mouth," my father said in a tone that was both
petulant and dangerous.
"That's all you're good for," my mother said, rounding on him, "hitting and the
"I'll show you what I'm good for," he said, pushing me aside roughly.
My mother screamed. "Big man," she said. "Try that with your friends in the bar!"
My father planted his hand in the middle of my mother's face and shoved her,
making her topple backwards over a chair.
"Stop!" I yelled, helping her back to her feet. "Stop it!"
My father grabbed an iron trivet from the stove and flung it across the room, where
it smashed through the glass cabinet front. My mother and I were backed against
the sink as he threw the coffeepot and a mug against the wall.
His fury apparently dissipated slightly, my father slammed out of the house,
stopping only to snatch his shirt off the floor where it had fallen with the
I turned to my mother, struggling with something to say, but she cut me off.
"See what you did?" she said in her hard, cold voice. "Go to bed."
In my room I realized that despite the fury of my father's eruption, I was unhurt
except for a set of marks on my forearm, where my mother's nails had dug into me.
I was a pill when school started again. The other kids avoided me, and Father Clem
asked me twice if I was feeling okay. Far from improving my mood, art class
reminded me of what I'd lost. I found out just how angry I was the first Friday after
I had gone to the bathroom between history and religion, and when I came back to
the room, I noticed that the other kids were quiet, and the new kid in the class was
standing over Kevin Lester's desk.
The new kid's name was Roger Rogers. He was taller than everyone else in the
class and had bright red hair. He had been left back at St. Finbar's, and had
transferred over the break.
Kevin and I had stayed out of each-other's orbits since the principal's office,
though I'd noticed the ongoing changes in him. As the semester passed he became
more and more withdrawn. He didn't seem to know how to be with other kids, if he
wasn't bullying them.
When I walked back into the room I unconsciously registered Roger Rogers'
hostile body language. I was about to slip quietly into my seat when I caught the
sick expression on Kevin's face.
"Hey rubber lips," Roger said, "you kiss your mother with that fat mouth?"
Kevin did indeed have a protruding lower lip, and six months before I would have
felt glee in seeing him tormented the way he'd tormented me. Now the look of
misery on his face reminded me of a beaten animal, and it wrung my heart.
Roger grabbed Kevin's lower lip between thumb and forefinger and started to drag
him out of his seat. Kevin tried ineffectually to pry the bigger boy's hand away.
"How far does this thing stretch?" Roger taunted.
Without thinking about it I picked up my hardbound copy of The Empire State in
both hands, and swung it for all I was worth at the side of Roger's head.
From a distance I heard the wet crunch of Roger's ear as the book connected, and
the horrified gasp of the other kids. Roger went down on all fours, but I didn't stop
there. The lightning of long-suppressed fury had found a path to ground, and I
smashed Roger several more times with the heavy text, until I was yanked bodily
backwards by Sister Agnes.
"Stop it, stop it!" she yelled.
What stopped me was the look of fear on her face. Roger was on the floor, a
crying, bloody mess. All the other kids, including Kevin, were frozen in wide-eyed
Sister Agnes helped Roger sit up, and from somewhere inside her habit produced a
white handkerchief to hold against his bloody face.
"Go to the principal's office," Sister Agnes hissed at me. "Tell her we need the
nurse. Then stay there!"
I did as I was told. Sister Gertrude and her secretary rushed out, leaving me to sit
alone in the empty office. I felt worse with every passing minute, and not just
because I was in trouble. I'd never hit anyone else in my life -- not seriously --
but I'd been hit more than a few times, and I knew how it felt. In an instant Roger
had gone from a smirking bully to a scared, kid with tears and snot and blood
running down his face.
I felt like throwing up, but I didn't dare leave the office. I tried to hold it down, but
at the last second all I had time to do was lunge for the trashcan. I was still bent
over it when Sister Gertrude came back. She ignored me and went straight to the
phone to call Roger's mother. When she was done she came around the desk and
stood in front of me.
"What happened?" she said curtly, her arms folded.
"I, I . . ." That was all I got out before I choked up and my vision started to blur
"Why are you crying?" the principal asked.
"I didn't mean to hurt him," I managed to get out. "Is he okay?"
She looked at me coolly. "I don't know. His ear is swollen and you cut his head
with the book," she said. "What. Happened."
"He was picking on Kevin . . ."
"Yes," I nodded. "He grabbed him by the lip -- Roger grabbed Kevin by the lip.
He was dragging him."
She gave me a long look then sighed. "Go wash your face while I call your mother.
My mother sat tight-lipped through Sister Gertrude's explanation of events.
"I'm sorry, Sister, he was raised better than that," my mother said, giving me a
"I'm sure he was," the principal said.
My mother's façade cracked a little -- her expression said she was trying to tell
whether Sister Gertrude was being sarcastic.
"He'll be punished for this," my mother finally said.
Punished. Bad as I was feeling, I almost laughed at the sense of order and
normalcy the word implied. My mother didn't punish me so much as conduct
protracted vendettas of scowls and angry silences.
"We'll have to see how the Rogers boy is before we make any decisions," Sister
Gertrude said. "Until then Jerry should stay home."
My mother nodded. I could tell from the look on her face she was choking back an
As we were leaving the outer office, the principal's secretary offered me a
sympathetic smile and a piece of hard candy from the bowl on her desk.
"He doesn't need any!" my mother snapped, grabbing me by the shoulder and
propelling me in front of her out of the office.
We walked home, my mother's shoes making angry clicks on the pavement. Fury
flowed off her in waves.
She exploded as soon as we were inside the door. "What's wrong with you?" she
said, snatching off my coat with angry jerks. "What's going to happen if you get
I didn't know what to say.
"Answer me!" she shouted. "Do you want to end up in public school with the
n------s? Is that what you want?"
The n------s. That was the trump card -- that was what my parents thought of as
danger, never mind that the few black kids at the Nativity School were as
terrorized by the bullies as I was.
"I didn't mean to hurt him," I said. That wasn't exactly true: in the moment I meant
to kill Roger. What I didn't understand was how the switch had flipped.
"What are you going to do about your schoolwork?" my mother went on, fury
unabated. "What if you get left back? Do you know how much I pay for that
My father walked in during this tirade -- apparently sober for a change. "What
happened?" he asked when my mother paused for breath.
"Ask your son," my mother said with a disgusted wave.
But as I started to explain, she couldn't contain herself.
"He got suspended, " she said, "For fighting in class."
"With who?" he asked me.
"What difference does it make? " my mother said. "He has a clear head, your son!"
I eventually got the whole story out, as my mother's vocalizations of outrage
"You shoulda minded your own business," my father said when I was finished, but
there was a note of pride in his voice.
Retelling the incident had brought back the pain and fear on Roger's face as he sat
on the floor sobbing.
"You don't know anything," I said.
My father jerked his head in surprise at that, but I ignored him and went to my
room to take off my school uniform.
It turned out Roger wasn't seriously hurt. There was another awkward shaking of
hands in the principal's office, and I was allowed to return to class status quo ante
The incident made me slightly more popular with my classmates, and I no longer
had to eat lunch hunched over my sandwich for fear it would be snatched away by
some bigger kid.
Kevin had been shedding friends since our meeting in the principal's office, but
now he was alone all the time. I tried talking to him a few times, but he barely
acknowledged me, looking strained and nervous whenever I approached. I gave up
out of a sense that I was doing more harm than good.
Except for art class, school continued to be enforced tedium. I didn't have the
release of Dreamland to look forward to in the afternoons and weekends, and
drawing it from memory was bittersweet at best. Time stood still.
Then in April, Father Clem made an announcement: he was taking both art classes
to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a field trip. I handed my mother the
permission slip with studied indifference: if she saw that I really wanted to go she
might refuse to sign it as punishment for any offense, ranging from my near-expulsion, to mediocre grades, to being "just like my father." She signed the slip
hurriedly, barely glancing at it, and I tucked it carefully away in my bookbag.
Our family never owned a car, so even the school bus ride over the Manhattan
Bridge and up the east side of Manhattan was a novelty. It was a brilliantly sunny
day in late April, and the East River was a sparkling blue ribbon stitched with the
foamy white wakes of tugs and powerboats.
But if the ride was enjoyable, I was speechless when we turned off of 85th Street
onto Fifth Avenue. The museum is set into the east side of Central Park, facing
Fifth Avenue. It has a huge limestone façade with paired columns, and adorned
with medallions, caryatids and gargoyles. The bus hadn't even stopped moving and
I was itching to get out and draw that façade.
There was the usual lining up and being counted by the nervous mothers along as
chaperones. Each of us received a little blue metal medallion with a white letter
"M" on its face to clip on our shirts as proof of admission. I still have mine.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, but was probably less than five
minutes, we met our tour guide, Nancy, a gray-haired woman in slacks and a tweed
"Who's been to the museum before?" Nancy asked. I think one hand went up.
"Oh, you're going to love this!" she said. "This is the best place in the world."
She wasn't faking it -- you could tell from the relaxed, happy expression on her
face. I might be a more religious person today if one priest or nun in my years in
the Catholic penal system had shown a fraction of that genuine enthusiasm for
matters of the spirit.
In retrospect, Nancy was not only enthusiastic, but knew exactly how to pitch art to
a mob of easily-distracted grade schoolers. Rather than lectures about provenance
and technique, she gave us digestible bits of information that helped us form the
beginnings of a context for the works we were looking at.
"The man who made this statue of the Discus Thrower probably died 500 years
before Christ was born," Nancy said. "It is old. The man who made this might have
been a slave -- a quarter of the people in Greece then were slaves -- and he lived
on bread, wine, fruits, vegetables and maybe some fish. He would eat meat,
probably lamb, only on special holidays."
The second floor of the museum is a rabbit warren of galleries, and I didn't realize
that we were headed for Guardi's Fantastic Landscape pieces until I was standing
in front of one of them. For the first time since we arrived, I completely tuned
Seeing them in person confirmed what I already knew. Francesco Guardi had been
to Dreamland, and these paintings were visual records of his travels. I don't know
how long I lost myself in those landscapes; I didn't come out of my trance until
Father Clem put his hand on my shoulder.
"Come on, partner, there's more to see," he said gently. I looked around and
realized that Nancy and the rest of the group were gone.
I didn't say anything as I followed him out. I felt like sitting on the floor and
crying with homesickness.
The Temple of Dendur is a whole Egyptian temple relocated to New York and
rebuilt a stone at a time inside the glass atrium on the first floor of the museum.
Nancy ended the tour there, and we all sat around the low stone benches that ringed
the temple, resting our tired legs.
You can't go into the temple itself -- red velvet ropes and plexiglass panels block
off the interior from the wear of millions of tourists' feet and oily fingers. I was
sitting in the bright greenhouse sunshine opposite the temple's entrance, feeling
sorry for myself. Guardi had again inflamed my ache for Dreamland.
When I caught the first flash of movement inside the temple, I assumed it was a
reflection off the plexiglass. It took me a moment to realize that I was somehow
looking through the temple, and into a landscape beyond, where a cloud drifted
across the sky.
I didn't blink, I didn't breathe. I was looking into Dreamland. I stood up slowly,
afraid that the motion would disturb the vision, but the green hills and high, blue
sky stayed right where they were, framed by the temple's sandstone pillars.
I wasn't even conscious of stepping over the velvet rope until someone took me by
"Come on now, boy." He was a tall, shaven-headed guard with a Caribbean accent.
"You're not supposed to go in dere."
I looked back into the temple -- there was Dreamland, just a few tantalizing feet
away. But there was no resisting the guard, whose hard muscles were obvious even
through the blue polyester uniform.
"You can look from out here now," he said, gently but firmly steering me back
beyond the ropes.
I wanted to scream with frustration. I toyed with the idea of plunging back in as
soon as he let my arm go, but he hovered too close, obviously reading my
I went back to the bench and got out my sketch pad. With shaking fingers I tried to
capture every detail I could see through the narrow temple entrance. I was still at it
when Father Clem herded us back to the bus, drawing furiously to hold on to
Kevin Lester's funeral mass was on a Thursday morning. It was supposedly an
accident: he'd slipped in front of an oncoming F-train at Jay Street. I knew
differently. Kevin had finally escaped from whatever was tormenting him.
My father came to the church, miraculously sober and dressed in his one and only
"What are you going for?" my mother said when the note came home about the
mass. "You don't even know the kid."
"I'm not going for the kid," he said, mingled pity and contempt for my mother in
At the church my father sat in the back with the other adults, and he turned to look
at me as my class filed in. I was struck by the subdued weariness on his face. To
this day I'm not sure whether he attended the funeral mass for my sake or his own.
All the kids in church looked shaken, too, including Roger Rogers, who'd regained
some of his status as class joker-slash-bully since our little encounter. He didn't
avoid me, but he didn't go out of his way to talk to me, either. He could still be
mean, especially to some of the smaller kids.
It was strange thinking of Kevin lying in the bronze casket in the center aisle of the
church. I wondered if he was messed up from the train, then pushed the image out
of my mind. I was sorry he was dead, and felt bad all over again about getting him
Kevin's mother and father sat in the front pew. His mother cried softly through the
whole mass. His father sat erect and unmoving, except to kneel and stand as the
service required. When they walked out of the church I dared a look at his face,
hard and expressionless as a fist.
"Hey partner, whatcha eating?" Father Clem asked, slipping onto the bench
opposite me in the lunchroom.
I'd been sitting there, half a salami sandwich in my hand, unable to swallow past
the lump of sadness in my throat.
"I feel bad for Kevin," I blurted out.
"I know," Father Clem said. "Me, too. He was a good kid."
I wanted to cry. I mean I knew Kevin wasn't a "good" kid, not most of time I'd
known him since first grade, but I knew what Father Clem meant.
"He was just . . ." I didn't know what I wanted to say. "It shouldn't have
happened." I was mortified to realize that tears were starting to run down my face
right in the middle of the lunchroom. I took out my handkerchief and blew my
"It's okay," Father Clem said. "It's okay to feel sad. It's how we let Kevin know
we miss him."
"You think he knows?" I said, my voice shaky.
Father Clem reached across and squeezed my arm. "I think he went to a better
place," he said.
I felt comforted by Father Clem's hand, warm and firm on my shoulder. Neither of
us said anything for a minute or two, then the bell rang.
I looked around to see if the other kids had noticed me crying to Father Clem, but
they all seemed wrapped up in their own little worlds that day.
"Do you really think Kevin is in heaven?" I asked as I got up.
Father Clem gave me an odd little smile. "Who said anything about heaven?" he
answered as he walked away.
I walked home from school that day, even though it was raining lightly. I wanted to
be alone. I was sad, and I didn't want to be at home, where the anger and tension
radiated off my mother and father like x-rays. I kept turning Father Clem's parting
words over and over in my head. Could a priest not believe in heaven? Could he
know something about Dreamland? I didn't even know how to begin to ask those
questions of an adult, much less a priest.
I walked over to Bedford Avenue, though it took me out of my way, so that I
wouldn't have to walk past the lot. There was a house on Bedford and Clifton
Place that some of the kids called the Addams Family house -- a run-down
Victorian with an overgrown yard. The house had boards nailed over the windows,
and broken glass littered the walkway.
It wasn't an inviting place, but that day it suited my melancholy mood. I pushed
past the broken wrought-iron gate and stood in the front yard. An ancient elm tree
leaned against the side of the house -- or maybe the house leaned against the tree
-- under which there was a dry patch carpeted with years' worth of fallen leaves.
I sat under the tree in a brown study, not particularly thinking of anything, when I
realized I could hear birds singing. That was a little strange, as it was in the middle
of an afternoon rain shower, but I recognized those calls -- they were stiletto birds.
Heart thumping in my chest, I followed the birdsong around to the back of the
house. The rear of the property was a riot of overgrown grass, small trees, and
shrubbery gone feral. Trying not to get my hopes up, I pushed my way into the
middle of the yard, oblivious to the rain and the wet plants soaking my pants.
The birds' singing seemed to be coming from everywhere, but all I saw ahead of
me were more head-high tangles of weeds and bushes. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe
they were just ordinary birds. My heart sank with the feeling that it was just a yard.
Then I heard the water.
I came out of the bushes about fifty feet away from the Down River. The familiar
green landscape rolled away from me to the horizon. As always, the sun was warm
and bright in a blue sky.
I sat in the pale green grass, choked up with joy and gratitude. I took in the rich
scents of earth and grass and water were like they were wine. Home.
In the first week of eighth grade I discovered another entrance to Dreamland,
through the cellar steps of a shuttered liquor store on Myrtle Avenue. By December
I'd discovered two more -- always in places abandoned or ignored by other
The summer before high school I got a job at a road construction company,
running little errands and spending as much time as I could around the surveyors,
then dashing out after work to try out new tricks in Dreamland. When I left, one of
the boss's sons, Gene, let me have an old, cracked transit.
I was never home in high school. I discovered the joys of schoolwork from a
handful of patient, overworked teachers at Abraham Lincoln, and the real world
started to seem a little bigger and brighter. I discovered girls, too, and how little
sleep I really needed in balancing school and life and my explorations in
Sometime in my senior year it occurred to me that my parents, especially my
father, had been shrinking gradually. His hair was now mostly white, and I was a
head taller than him. His smoker's cough turned into emphysema, then pneumonia,
with long stays in the loud, open wards at Coney Island Hospital. I knew he was
really sick when they moved him to a private room.
My father's death, the pathetically small funeral and alcoholic embraces of
relatives we hardly knew, seemed to have almost no effect on my mother, other
than making her more fantastically determined to wring unhappiness out of life.
She will live to be 100, every one of her days an acid bath.
This is me at fifty years old, sitting on a hill in Dreamland, capturing the long
shadows of the trees on a green meadow. It is no longer morning by the sun's
position, but four o'clock, I'd say, having moved across the sky in insensible
increments over the years.
I make a good living from my art and books, especially An Atlas of Dreamland, a
giant coffee-table volume with color plates that costs a shocking amount of money.
Over the years I've learned not to panic when a door to Dreamland closes or
disappears; another one inevitably opens. Every now and again I see a piece of art,
or read a book that I think must be created by a fellow traveler. I have never seen
another living person here.
I don't know why I have the gift of entering Dreamland when others do not. I don't
think it springs from any special virtue or talent on my part. Over the years I've
made peace with that mystery, among others.
I sit in my patch of dappled sunlight, surrounded by my hills and plains, absorbed
in work I've done all my adult life and yet, pleasurably, have infinite room to
improve. There will always be blank spaces at the edges of the map.