"The dead are not altogether powerless."
This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew, and my mother says it's impossible to know a thing like that anyway. She's wrong, though, and she doesn't need me to tell her she is, either.
Back then, we still gathered, afterschool afternoons, at the Andersz's house, because it was close to the Locks. If it wasn't raining, we'd drop our books and grab Ho Hos out of the tin Mr. Andersz always left on the table for us and head immediately toward the water. Gulls spun in the sunlight overhead, their cries urgent, taunting, telling us, you're missing it, you're missing it. We'd sprint between the rows of low stone duplexes, the sad little gardens with their flowers battered by the rain until the petals looked bent and forgotten like discarded training wheels, the splintery, sagging blue walls of the Black Anchor restaurant where Mr. Paars used to hunker alone and murmuring over his plates of reeking lutefisk when he wasn't stalking 15th Street, knocking pigeons and homeless people out of the way with his dog-head cane. Finally, we'd burst into the park, pour down the avenue of fir trees like a mudslide, scattering people, bugs, and birds before us until we hit the water.
For hours, we'd prowl the green hillsides, watching the sailors yell at the invading seals from the top of the Locks while the seals ignored them, skimming for fish and sometimes rolling on their backs and flipping their fins. We watched the rich-people sailboats with their masts rusting, the big grey fishing boats from Alaska and Japan and Russia with the fishermen bored on deck, smoking, throwing butts at the seals and leaning on the rails while the gulls shrieked overhead. As long as the rain held off, we stayed and threw stones to see how high up the opposing bank we could get them, and Peter would wait for ships to drift in front of us and then throw low over their bows. The sailors would scream curses in other languages or sometimes ours, and Peter would throw bigger stones at the boat-hulls. When they hit with a thunk, we'd flop on our backs on the wet grass and flip our feet in the air like the seals. It was the rudest gesture we knew.
Of course, most days it was raining, and we stayed in the Andersz's basement until Mr. Andersz and the Serbians came home. Down there, in the dampMr. Andersz claimed his was one of three basements in all of Ballardyou could hear the wetness rising in the grass outside like lock-water. The first thing Peter did when we got downstairs was flick on the gas fireplace (not for heat, it didn't throw any), and we'd toss in stuff: pencils, a tinfoil ball, a plastic cup, and once a broken old 45 which formed blisters on its surface and then spit black goo into the air like a fleeing octopus dumping ink before it slid into a notch in the logs to melt. Once, Peter went upstairs and came back with one of Mr. Andersz's red spiral photo albums and tossed it into the flames, and when one of the Mack sisters asked him what was in it, he told her, "No idea. Didn't look."
The burning never lasted long, five minutes, maybe. Then we'd eat Ho Hos and play the Atari Mr. Andersz had bought Peter years before at a yardsale, and it wasn't like you think, not always. Mostly, Peter flopped in his orange bean-bag chair with his long legs stretched in front of him and his too-long black bangs splayed across his forehead like the talons of some horrible, giant bird gripping him to lift him away. He let me and the Mack sisters take turns on the machine, and Kenny London and Steve Rourke, too, back in the days when they would come. I was the best at the basic games, Asteroids and Pong, but Jenny Mack could stay on Dig Dug forever and not get grabbed by the floating grabby-things in the ground. Even when we asked Peter to take his turn, he wouldn't. He'd say, "Go ahead," or, "Too tired," or, "Fuck off," and once I even turned around in the middle of losing to Jenny and found him watching us, sort of, the rainy window and us, not the TV screen at all. He reminded me a little of my grandfather before he died, all folded up in his chair and not wanting to go anywhere and kind of happy to have us there. Always, Peter seemed happy to have us there.
When Mr. Andersz got home, he'd fish a Ho Ho out of the tin for himself if we'd left him onewe tried to, most daysand then come downstairs, and when he peered out of the stairwell, his black wool hat still stuck to his head like melted wax, he already looked different than when we saw him at school. At school, even with his hands covered in yellow chalk and his transparencies full of fractions and decimals scattered all over his desk and the pears he carried with him and never seemed to eat, he was just Mr. Andersz, fifth-grade math teacher, funny accent, funny to get angry. At school, it never occurred to any of us to feel sorry for him.
"Well, hello, all of you," he'd say, as if talking to a litter of puppies he'd found, and we'd pause our game and hold our breaths and wait for Peter. Sometimesmost timesPeter said, "Hey" back, or even, "Hey Dad." Then we'd all chime in like a clock tolling the hour, "Hey Mr. Andersz," "Thanks for the Ho Hos," "You're hat's all wet again," and he'd smile and nod and go upstairs.
There were the other days, too. A few, that's all. On most of those, Peter just didn't answer, wouldn't look at his father. It was only the one time that he said, "Hello, Dipshit-Dad," and Jenny froze at the Atari and one of the floating grabby things swallowed her digger, and the rest of us stared, but not at Peter, and not at Mr. Andersz, either. Anywhere but there.
For a few seconds, Mr. Andersz seemed to be deciding, and rain-rivers wriggled down the walls and windows like transparent snakes, and we held our breath. But all he said, in the end, was, "We'll talk later, Struwwelpeter," which was only a little different from what he usually said when Peter got this way. Usually, he said, "Oh. It's you, then. Hello, Struwwelpeter." I never liked the way he said that, as though he was greeting someone else entirely, not his son. Eventually, Jenny or her sister Kelly would say, "Hi, Mr. Andersz," and he'd glance around at us as though he'd forgotten we were there, and then he'd go upstairs and invite the Serbians in, and we wouldn't see him again until we left.
The Serbians made Steve Rourke nervous, which is almost funny, in retrospect. They were big and dark, both of them, two brothers who looked at their hands whenever they saw children. One was a car mechanic, the other worked at the Locks, and they sat all afternoon, most afternoons, in Mr. Andersz's study, sipping tea and speaking Serbian in low whispers. The words made their whispers harsh, full of z's and ground-up s's, as though they'd swallowed glass. "They could be planning things in there," Steve used to say. "My dad says both those guys were badass soldiers." Mostly, as far as I could tell, they looked at Mr. Andersz's giant library of photo albums and listened to records. Judy Collins, Joan Baez. Almost funny, like I said.
Of course, by this last Halloweenmy last night at the Andersz houseboth Serbians were dead, run down by a drunken driver while walking across Fremont Bridge, and Kenny London had moved away, and Steve Rourke didn't come anymore. He said his parents wouldn't let him, and I bet they wouldn't, but that isn't why he stopped coming. I knew it, and I think Peter knew it, too, and that worried me, a little, in ways I couldn't explain.
I almost didn't get to go, either. I was out the door, blinking in the surprising sunlight and the wind rolling off the Sound through the streets, when my mother yelled, "ANDREW!" and stopped me. I turned to find her in the open screen door of our duplex, arms folded over the long, grey coat she wore inside and out from October to May, sunlight or no, brown-grey curls bunched on top of her scalp as though trying to crawl over her head out of the wind. She seemed to be wiggling in mid-air, like a salmon trying to hold itself still against a current. Rarely did she take what she called her "frustrations" out on me, but she'd been crabby all day, and now she looked furious, despite the fact that I'd stayed in my room, out of her way, from the second I got home from school, because I knew she didn't really want me out tonight. Not with Peter. Not after last year.
"That's a costume?" She gestured with her chin at my jeans, my everyday black sweater, too-small brown mac she'd promised to replace this year.
"You're not going trick-or-treating?"
The truth was, no one went trick-or-treating much in our section of Ballard, not like in Bellingham where we'd lived when we lived with my dad. Too wet and dismal, most days, and there were too many drunks lurking around places like the Black Anchor and sometimes stumbling down the duplexes, shouting curses at the dripping trees.
"Trick-or-treating's for babies," I said.
"Hmm, I wonder which of your friends taught you that," my mother said, and then a look flashed across her face, different than the one she usually got at times like this. She still looked sad, but not about me. She looked sad for me.
I took a step toward her, and her image wavered in my glasses. "I won't sleep there. I'll be home by eleven," I said.
"You'll be home by ten, or you won't be going anywhere again anytime soon. Got it? How old do you think you are, anyway?"
"Twelve," I said, with as much conviction as I could muster, and my mother flashed the sad look again.
"If Peter tells you to jump off a bridge
"Push him off."
My mother nodded. "If I didn't feel so bad for him
" she said, and I thought she meant Peter, and then I wasn't sure. But she didn't say anything else, and after a few seconds, I couldn't stand there anymore, not with the wind crawling down the neck of my jacket and my mother still looking like that. I left her in the doorway.
Even in bright sunlight, mine was a dreary neighborhood. The gusts of wind herded paper scraps and street-grit down the overflowing gutters and yanked the last leaves off the trees like a gleeful gang on a vandalism rampage. I saw a few parentsnew to the area, obviouslyhunched into rain-slickers, leading little kids from house to house. The kids wore drug-store clown costumes, Darth Vader masks, sailor caps. They all looked edgy, miserable. At most of the houses, no one answered the doorbell.
Outside the Andersz's place, I stopped for just a minute, watching the leaves leaping from their branches like lemmings and tumbling down the wind, trying to figure out what was different, what felt wrong. Then I had it: the Mountain was out. The endless Fall rain had rolled in early that year, and it had been weeks, maybe months, since I'd last seen Mount Rainier. Seeing it now gave me the same unsettled sensation as always. "It's because you're looking south, not west," people always say, as if that explains how the mountain gets to that spot on the horizon, on the wrong side of the city, not where it actually is but out to sea, seemingly bobbing on the waves, not the land.
How many times, I wondered abruptly, had some adult in my life asked why I liked Peter? I wasn't cruel, and despite my size, I wasn't easily cowed, and I did okay in schoolnot as well as Peter, but okayand I had "a gentleness, most days," as Mrs. Corbett (WhoreButt, to Peter) had written on my report card last year. "If he learns to exercise judgmentand perhaps gives some thought to his choice of companionshe could go far."
I wanted to go far from Ballard, anyway, and the Locks, and the smell of lutefisk, and the rain. I liked doorbell ditching, but I didn't get much charge out of throwing stones through windows. And if people were home when we did it, came out and shook their fists or worse, just stood there, looking at us the way you would a wind or an earthquake, nothing you could slow or stop, I'd freeze, feeling bad, until Peter screamed at me or yanked me so hard that I had no choice but to follow.
I could say I liked how smart Peter was, and I did. He could sit dead still for 27 minutes of a 30-minute comprehension test, then scan the reading and answer every question right before the teacher, furious, hovering over him and watching the clock, could snatch the paper away without the rest of us screaming foul. He could recite the periodic table of elements backwards, complete with atomic weights. He could build skyscrapers five feet high out of chalk and rubber cement jars and toothpicks and crayons that always stayed standing until anyone who wasn't him tried to touch them.
I could say I liked the way he treated everyone the same, which he did, in a way. He'd been the first in my gradethe only one, for a year or soto hang out with the Mack sisters, who were still, at that point, the only African Americans in our school. But he wasn't all that nice to the Macks, really. Just no nastier than he was to the rest of us.
No. I liked Peter for exactly the reason my mother and my teachers feared I did: because he was fearless, because he was cruelalthough mostly to people who deserved it when it wasn't Halloweenand most of all, because he really did seem capable of anything. So many of the people I knew seemed capable of nothing, for whatever reason. Capable of nothing.
Out on the whitecap-riddled Sound, the sun sank, and the Mountain turned red. It was like looking inside it, seeing it living. Shivering slightly in the wind, I hopped the Andersz's three stone steps and rang the bell.
"Just come in, fuck!" I heard Peter yell from the basement, and I started to open the door, and Mr. Andersz opened it for me. He had his grey cardigan straight on his waist for once and his black hat was gone and his black-grey hair was wet and combed on his forehead, and I had the horrible, hilarious idea that he was going on a date.
"Andrew, come in," he said, sounding funny, too formal, the way he did at school. He didn't step back right away, either, and when he did, he put his hand against the mirror on the hallway wall, as though the house was rocking underneath him.
"Hey, Mr. Andersz," I said, wiping my feet on the shredded green mat that said something in Serbian. Downstairs, I could hear the burbling of the Dig Dug game, and I knew the Mack sisters had arrived. I flung my coat over Peter's green slicker on the coatrack, took a couple steps toward the basement door, turned around, stopped.
Mr. Andersz had not moved, hadn't even taken his hand off the mirror, and now he was staring at it as though it was a spider frozen there.
"Are you all right, Mr. Andersz?" I asked, and he didn't respond. Then he made a sound, a sort of hiss, like a radiator when you switch it off.
"How many?" he muttered. I could barely hear him. "How many chances? As a teacher, you know there won't be many. You get two, maybe three moments in an entire year
Something's happened, there's been a fight or someone's sick or the soccer team won or something, and you're looking at a student
" His voice trailed off, leaving me with the way he said 'student.' He pronounced it 'stu-DENT.' It was one of the things we all made fun of, not mean fun, just fun. "You're looking at them," he said, "and suddenly, there they are. And it's them, and it's thrilling, terrifying, because you know you might have a chance
an opportunity. You can say something."
On the mirror, Mr. Andersz's hand twitched, and I noticed the sweat beading under the hair on his forehead. It reminded me of my dad, and I wondered if Mr. Andersz was drunk. Then I wondered if my dad was drunk, wherever he was. Downstairs, Jenny Mack yelled, "Get off," in her fighting voice, happy-loud, and Kelly Mack said, "Good, come on, this is boring."
"And as parent
" Mr. Andersz muttered. "How many? And what happens
the moment comes
but you're missing your wife. Just right then, just for a while. Or your friends. Maybe you're tired. It's just that day. It's rainy, you have meals to make, you're tired
There'll be another moment. Surely. You have years. Right? You have years
So fast and so silent was Peter's arrival in the basement doorway that I mistook him for a shadow from outside, didn't even realize he was there until he pushed me in the chest. "What's your deal?" he said.
I started to gesture at Mr. Andersz, thought better of it, shrugged. Footsteps clattered on the basement stairs, and then the Macks were in the room. Kelly had her tightly braided hair stuffed under a black, backward baseball cap. Her bare arms were covered in paste-on snake tattoos, and her face was dusted in white powder. Jenny wore a red sweater, black jeans. Her hair hung straight and shiny and dark, hovering just off her head and neck like a bird's crest, and I understood, for the first time, that she was pretty. Her eyes were bright green, wet and watchful.
"What are you supposed to be?" I said to Kelly, because suddenly I was uncomfortable looking at Jenny.
Kelly flung her arm out to point and did a quick, ridiculous shoulder-wriggle. It was nothing like her typical movements; I'd seen her dance. "Vanilla Ice," she said, and spun around.
"Let's go," Peter said, stepping past me and his father and tossing my mac on the floor so he could get to his slicker.
"You want candy, Andy?" Jenny teased, her voice sing-songy.
"Ho Ho?" I asked. I was talking, I suppose, to Mr. Andersz, who was still staring at his hand on the mirror. I didn't want him to be in the way. It made me nervous for him.
The word 'Ho Ho' seemed to rouse him, though. He shoved himself free of the wall, shook his head as if awakening, and said, "Just a minute," very quietly.
Peter opened the front door, letting in the wind, and Mr. Andersz pushed it closed, not hard. But he leaned against it, and the Mack sisters stopped with their coats half on. Peter just stood beside him, his black hair sharp and pointy on his forehead like the tips of a spiked fence. But he looked more curious than angry.
Mr. Andersz lifted a hand to his eyes, squeezed them shut, opened them. Then he said, "Turn out your pockets."
Still, Peter's face registered nothing. He didn't respond to his father or glance at us. Neither Kelly nor I moved, either. Beside me, Jenny took a long, slow breath, as though she was clipping a wire on a bomb, and then she said, "Here, Mr. A," and she pulled the pockets of her grey coat inside out, revealing two sticks of Dentyne, two cigarettes, a ring of keys with a Seahawks whistle dangling amongst them, and a ticket-stub. I couldn't see what from.
"Thank you, Jenny," Mr. Andersz said, but he didn't take the cigarettes, hardly even looked at her. He watched his son.
Very slowly, after a long time, Peter smiled. "Look at you," he said. "Being daddy." He pulled out the liner of his coat-pockets. There was nothing in them at all.
"Pants," said Mr. Andersz.
"What do you think you're looking for, Big Bad Daddy?" Peter asked. "What do you think you're going to find?"
"Pants," Mr. Andersz said.
"And what will you do, do you think, if you find it?" But he turned out his pants pockets. There was nothing in those, either, not even keys or money.
For the first time since Peter had come upstairs, Mr. Andersz looked at the rest of us, and I shuddered. His face looked the same way my mother's had when I left the house: a little scared, but mostly sad. Permanently, stupidly sad.
"I want to tell you something," he said. If he spoke like this in the classroom, I thought, no one would wedge unbent paperclips in his chalkboard erasers anymore. "I won't have it. There will be no windows broken. There will be no little children terrorized"
"That wasn't our fault," said Jenny, and she was right, in a way. We hadn't known anyone was hiding in those bushes when we toilet-papered them, and Peter had meant to light his cigarette, not the roll of toilet paper.
"Nothing lit on fire. No one bullied or hurt. I won't have it, because it's beneath you, do you understand? You're the smartest children I know." Abruptly, Mr. Andersz's hands flashed out and grabbed his son's shoulders. "Do you hear me? You're the smartest child I've ever seen."
For a second, they just stood there, Mr. Andersz clutching Peter's shoulders as though trying to steer a runaway truck, Peter completely blank.
Then, very slowly, Peter smiled. "Thanks, Dad," he said.
"Please," Mr. Andersz said, and Peter opened his mouth, and we all cringed.
But what he said was, "Okay," and he slipped past his father and out the door. I looked at the Mack sisters. Together, we watched Mr. Andersz in the doorway with his head tilted forward on his neck and his hands tight at his sides, like a diver at the Olympics getting ready for a backflip. He never moved, though, and eventually, we followed Peter out. I was last, and I thought I felt Mr. Andersz's hand on my back as I went by, but I wasn't sure, and when I glanced around, he was still just standing there, and the door swung shut.