In the summer of 1974 my parents sent me to live with my grandparents.
My mother’s parents lived in a modest, one-story house in Silver Spring. It was a nondescript little box, half-heartedly Colonial, with a pointed cupola and black shutters that could never be shut. The driveway was stained, the front walk cracked, and the black weathervane atop the cupola listed to one side like the mast of a foundering ship.
I was given the room, at the back of the house, that had belonged to my mother’s late brother, my Uncle Charles, from whom I was generally said to have inherited all of the undesirable qualities and behaviors that had led to my banishment from home. Uncle Charles’s room was smaller than my bedroom, but I would not be obliged to share it, as I had done at home with my sister Laura from her birth until the previous spring. Even though Laura was dead, her bed was still there, made and cool and with a whiff of dust on her pillow. Her clothes were in the drawers, her toys in the wicker basket, and her little cardboard books were neatly piled on the shelf. The idea of having an entire room to myself appealed to me, even if it had belonged to wicked Uncle Charles, and even if, by eight o’clock in the morning, the room was like an oven. It caught the full first light of day, and that first morning I awoke drenched in sweat, as after a fever. Yet I could not bear to shut the blinds, not all the way, because I knew from previous visits that in Uncle Charles’s bedroom closet hung a pair of Mexican marionettes: a guitarist, in black embroidered with silver, and a senorita in red with a fan. They had staring black eyes, chiseled chins and cheekbones, matching murderous smiles, and the rosy cheeks of evil itself. I absolutely needed to be able to see them if they ever decided to come out at night and strangle me.
Over breakfast my grandmother informed me that there was a boy my age living in the house next door whom I was going to be obliged to befriend.
“His name is Fred, or Freddy,” she said. She was a thickly upholstered woman—the word that came to mind, unbidden, whenever she took me in her arms, was spongy—with a shy manner and a voice that was no more than a husky whisper, but my mother and grandfather, I knew, were afraid of her tongue and her temper. Over the years I had seen them conspire, at times jokingly, at times with great anxiety, to keep unwelcome information from her, and to argue over who was going to break some item of news that was guaranteed, in my grandfather’s phrase, to “tee her off.” Whenever he said this, I would picture my grandmother’s gray head being launched skyward from the tee of her body by an arcing nine-iron of rage. “I don’t know which he prefers. He is crippled in his legs. His father left his mother. None of the other children in the neighborhood will have anything to do with him, and it breaks his mother’s heart.”
“I can’t play with him if he doesn’t have legs,” I said. “I’m sorry, but that’s just a fact.”
“He has legs,” she said, setting my plate of eggs and grits down in front of me with a violent clatter. She was from Richmond, and the things she cooked and the way she talked were tinged with the accent of her Virginia girlhood. “They just don’t work very well.”
I appealed, with a look, to my grandfather. He had recently retired from his job as a grain pathologist at the Department of Agriculture, and from somewhere in the vague era that preceded Laura’s death I recalled promises of the marvelous things we would do together after his retirement. There was an elaborate woodshop in the basement, fishing rods in the hall closet, a reflecting telescope in the attic. Such activities might conceivably eat into my time to such an extent that there would be no room for Fred or Freddy the crippled reject from society.
But my grandfather only looked down at his own plate of eggs and grits, and I saw that his plans for the summer did not include me. Though he was ordinarily a loquacious person, opinionated, well informed, tactless and corny, my presence in his house now seemed to have left him with little to say. I was used, by this point, to the idea that my presence in a room could stop conversation. I was used to inspiring adults, even those who loved me, with pity and unease. I understood and, because I was so young, accepted it as fact, that no one around me was ever going to be the same again. Only my grandmother’s manner had not changed. She had always insisted, from the time I was a small boy—never wholly without affection—that I was a no-good rotten kid. Thirty years of Uncle Charles, a span that encompassed multiple expulsions from school, two arrests, a civil law suit, the severing of his little finger, and Charles’s eventual violent death under mysterious circumstances in the parking lot of a bar in Hawthorne, California, had prepared my grandmother to brave my big mouth, my unruliness, and the black cloud of my tragic error without the faintest hint of either discomfort or sympathy. For that pitilessness, I was unspeakably grateful to her.
“He’s probably a dork,” I theorized.
“I don’t know what a dork is,” said my grandmother. “But whatever it is, I’m sure that you have no room to talk.”
I told my grandmother that I would rather do anything than make the acquaintance of the crippled boy next door. Somewhat to my surprise, she nodded, forming her mouth into a thin, lipless smile—someday I would learn to beware the deep layers of grandmaster premeditation which that toenail smile foretold—and left me to the haphazard and rather tired collection of colored markers, comic books and plastic Airfix Romans and Britons that I had been permitted to throw together before my parents cast me, like a tiny Jonah, over the side of their storm-beset marriage. I knew better than to ask my grandmother if I could watch television; one of the key tenets of her parenting philosophy was the Helleresque paradox that any child who wanted to watch television by definition did not deserve to do so. By eleven a.m. I had exhausted the potential for amusement inherent not only in these but in all the usual meager resources my grandparents’ house afforded: the canister filled with amber swizzle sticks topped with plastic giraffes, the strangely truncated canasta decks and incomplete sets of checkers and chess, the stacking coasters depicting Israeli scenes, the minute thrill to be derived from a backward lurch in the Barcalounger.
My grandparents’ house had no air-conditioning, only a rumbling exhaust fan up in the attic. You opened the windows, lowered the attic stairs, threw a Frankensteinian switch, and then, if you were my grandmother, cursed and berated your husband from late May to early September for being too cheap to invest in a couple of window units. If you were my grandfather, you claimed to take comfort in the hypothetical movement of air molecules through your sweltering house, up into the attic, and out into the world. After that, I suppose, it was the neighbors’ problem. I felt as if I were going to suffocate; I felt that I was suffocating, as if the exhaust fan were sucking out all the life and motion of the world and every thought in my head apart from the one that was always there. Every so often my grandmother would appear, silent as a phantom, at the doorway to whatever room I had been reduced to mining for diversions, and stand there, watching me. Each time I thought I saw a hint of disappointment, as if she had slipped a dose of strychnine into my grits that morning or were waiting for the exhaust fan to suck the last atom of oxygen from my lungs.
“Having fun?” she would ask, mockingly.
At last I could stand it no longer, and even though the thermometer outside the kitchen window said 105°, I drifted out into Claymore Lane to find that it had melted. You could finger out gobs of it and roll them into balls between your fingers. A nation of gnats, wide as Maryland, hung suspended in the atmosphere, jiggling in the heat. The air was something that Mr. Spock with his tricorder would have cautioned against breathing, dense and aquatic and laced invisibly with the hydrogen sulfate of boredom. I chewed on a bitter little black wad of Claymore Lane for a while, and then, sighing, rose slowly and drifted back into the house. I was certain that I had spent at least an hour at the bottom of the submarine trench of Claymore Lane. But when I checked the clock I found, to my horror, that less than fifteen minutes had passed.
It was now that my grandmother sprung her slyest gambit. Having reduced me to a state of mental asphyxia, she now offered, spontaneously and with the smile that was like the indentation of a nailhead in a wooden plank, to let me watch television. This was, as I soon discovered, a devilish bit of craft. The 1965-vintage Philco black-and-white television set, never a paragon of reception or picture, had suffered a reverse since my last visit: it had lost its rabbit ears. My grandfather had repaired the injury with a complicated system of coathangers and aluminum foil, with the result, at once unforeseen and predictable, that only one channel could now be watchably received. It was an educational station, of all things, pulled in, by some miraculous element in the composition of Reynolds wrap, all the way from Fredericksburg, Virginia. An hour’s effort suggested, and subsequent attempts confirmed, that during the morning hours this station seemed to show nothing but instructional programs in accounting and sewing and endless episodes of Lilias Yoga and You.
At two o’clock, following a lunch of tomato and sardine sandwiches, I tipped over my king.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll meet him.”
And so my grandmother conveyed me, like a casserole, to the unfortunate neighbors. Mrs. Magruder was a tall, stooped woman with graying hair and a lot of flesh-colored powder on her face; the powder was not, however, quite the color of Mrs. Magruder’s flesh. It was pitted and streaked from the sweat that beaded and streamed down her cheeks. Mrs. Magruder’s hair hung in two lank swags on either side of her long face, and her bangs were a damp valence plastered to her high forehead.
“Let me explain to you about Fred,” she said, in the kitchen, where she had promised me a Coke.
“I already explained to him,” my grandmother said, eyeing the Coke in which I was now foolishly, if not criminally, bathing my teeth. That I was being permitted to drink it at all constituted a rare display of politeness on her part. “He doesn’t need to hear anything else.” She looked at me, and then at the Coke. It was more than she could bear. She held out her hand, I gave her the Coke, and then, as if she were Merlin driving the sword into the anvil, she set it down on the counter, where it might await the coming of a worthier child than me. “Go. Play.”
“He’s up in his room,” Mrs. Magruder said.
Fred’s father had dropped him down some stairs when he was a little boy, and then the procedure to repair him had not gone well. That was how Fred explained the frailty of his legs. It sounded awful enough then, but now I realize that what must of course have happened was that Fred’s father had thrown Fred down the stairs. There was a picture of him on Fred’s desk. I thought he looked a little like Lee Majors.
“He lives in Laurel,” Fred said.
“I bought my bike in Laurel. It’s a ten speed. But it’s at home. All my stuff is at home.”
“Oh,” said Fred. He was a slight, pale boy with a considerate expression. He sat in a small armchair, dressed in a green plaid short-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way to the top. The chair had a cowboy feel; wagon-wheel spokes supported the arms. I looked, but could see nothing obviously wrong with his legs, in their neatly pressed tan chinos. He did, however, seem very small, even tiny. I wondered if this had something to do with his affliction. His crutches—they were lifelong crutches, the metal kind that gripped your arms—rested against the back of his chair. A magazine lay spread in his lap, open to a page with a big color photograph of a mountain goat. He didn’t look sad or miserable in the least about his condition. But he struck me as the most serious boy that I had ever met.
“How old are you?” I said.
“Eleven. How old are you?”
“Eleven. You look like you’re nine or possibly eight.”
“I know,” he said. He smiled. “I’m quite small for my age.”
“What is that magazine you’re reading?”
He handed it to me, and I closed it and studied the cover. It was called Switzerland Today. The cover photo depicted a welding activity in a Swiss factory that made tram cars.
“I have a subscription,” he said.
There was something about his calm demeanor, about his unearthly pleasantness, that irritated me. I found it offensive. I wished that he would get up onto his crutches and walk around a little bit so that I could knock them out from under him. The flare up of anger was sudden and familiar. This anger had preceded Laura’s death: it had been the steady companion of my childhood, my invisible friend. Since then, it and I seemed at last to have exchanged places, like Captain Kirk and his savage antimatter double in “Mirror, Mirror.”
“This looks boring,” I said.
He shrugged. “I like it,” he said. “When I grow up I am going to live in Switzerland.”
I looked around the room. Books, model airplanes, a little metal thermometer in the shape of the Washington Monument. There was nothing of interest but the dad with his big grin and sideburns and a queer old hairbrush-and-comb set in a tray on the dresser, with a matching nailbrush and file. I went over and picked up the nailbrush. It was made from green horn and yellow ivory that years later I would learn to have been Bakelite. Its bristles were soft. I rubbed them against my cheek.
“Those hairs came from a badger,” Fred said.
“Did they kill it?”
He considered the question. He shrugged. “I guess they must have.”
For some reason this sent me over the edge. It was not the idea that a badger had been sacrificed to make a nailbrush, so much as the thought of how long ago that badger must have died, of how many other badgers had lived and died since then. There was something appalling about that. Or maybe it was the just the docility, the placid acceptance of his fate, the swissophilia that the matched set of grooming implements, arranged neatly in their tray, seemed to imply. In any case, I carried the nail brush over to the open window, and threw it out. Kind of an odd thing to do, come to think of it, considering that I had (accidentally, I swear) dropped my baby sister out of a window. There was a clatter, not as loud or final as I would have liked.
I turned back to see how Fred had taken it. He was still sitting stock-still in his little cowpoke chair. He looked confused, more than anything else.
“Why did you do that?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Already I was having a hard time believing what I had just done. I looked out of the window, which overlooked a side roof of the house. The nail brush was lying there, having fallen no more than thirty inches. But it was nicely broken nonetheless. “I broke it.”
Now he looked a little sad. Remorse, my other secret sharer, showed up to do his bit.
“My father always had beautiful nails,” he said. “That’s something my mother always says about him.”
I looked down at my hands with their fiery cuticles from where I used to eat myself. I was just the worst child who had ever lived.
“My parents made me come live here for the summer,” I said. “In case you were wondering. I mean, they say it’s only for the summer.”
“But you might have to live here forever?”
This thought had already occurred to me, but it was a little scary to hear Fred say it aloud. He watched my face, waiting for a reply. When none came, he tossed aside the magazine and wriggled forward in his chair. At the same time he reached for his crutches and deftly swung them around and snapped his arms into place. An instant later he was on his feet. It was a kind of kung fu or James Bond move. It impressed me a great deal, and now I regretted my outburst more than ever.
“Put the radio on,” he said. He glanced back at the window behind his chair. “I’ll show you something.”
There was no menace or queerness in his manner, none at all. Mischief, yes. And the illicit sharing of a trust. I wondered if he were keeping some interesting animal, a snake, say. Vaguely I hoped he might be about to set something on fire. Perhaps he was going to show me his ruined legs, though I couldn’t imagine why he would need to drown that out. Perhaps what I would see when he rolled up his trouser legs would cause me to scream in horror. I went over and switched on his radio. It was shaped like a can of Coca Cola. When I turned around again, Fred was already halfway out the window. This possibility had not occurred to me and I remember that I was disappointed because I had hoped we were past the nail brush. He fell the rest of the way out of the house and then worked himself back around. He poked in his head, grinning.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s okay.”
So I climbed out and went to sit next to him. This much I am certain of, though we are reaching the point in this recollection where I can only promise to report what I remember and not what I necessarily expect the reader to believe. I remember that we dangled our feet over the side. It thrilled and horrified me to imagine my grandmother’s reaction if she were to find me sitting on the roof. The composite tiles of the roof were uncomfortably hot, and they abraded my bare knees as I slid across them. I was not sure how long I would be able to stand the heat up there.
“What is it?” I said. “What did you want to show me?”
The look of mischief was gone; he was all serious again. I sensed he had lost his nerve.
“It’s something I figured out how to do,” he said.
Is there any memory more vivid than that of a child we knew for a day? My father showed up that night, just after supper, to bring me back home. After a brief, hissed exchange in the kitchen with my grandparents, I was bundled into the back of our Dodge—stretched out in a sleeping bag across the back seat. Many years later I asked my mother what had prompted them to banish me for a day, though really I was more interested in knowing why they had taken me back. She claimed not to know what I was talking about; she denied ever sending me away.
The next time that I visited my grandparents, Fred Magruder and his mother had moved, leaving no forwarding address or telephone number. Thereafter I have been alert to people named Magruder, asking them, when we cross paths, if they happen to know of a Fred. I have made a casual but energetic search of the Internet. I have never lost the certainty that Fred and I would meet again one day, just as I have never stopped thinking, in spite of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, that one day I will go back there, to that summer, to that house in Silver Spring, to my grandmother’s eggs and grits, to the world of my childhood, which once included a voluble red-headed toddler. It’s all there, waiting for me, if only I can find my way back.
This is what I remember. Most of the time I don’t even believe it myself. I remember that, after another instant of hesitation, Fred whirled his crutches into position and, wielding them like chopsticks, plucked himself up onto his feet. He moved to the edge of the roof, which directly overlooked my grandparents yard. He cast his crutches to one side. And then he stepped off into the sky. I remember the plaid of his shirt, the pale band of nape revealed by a recent haircut, the searing heat coming off the roof shingles. I remember the song that was playing on the radio:
I can’t get it out of my head
No, I can’t get it out of my head
And I remember the way he looked, pasted against the sky. The heat of the roof rippled the air below his feet, as if it bore him aloft. As if the summer itself had the strength to do that. He smiled at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, pointing to the scattered bits of green and ivory. “I’m sorry for what I did.”
“Oh, I forgive you,” he said. “Now you do it.”
This is the last thing I remember. I slid, on my butt, down to the very edge of the roof, and then stood up, wobbling like a surfer with my hands outstretched, and my fingers splayed. And then the world gave way, just a little bit, from underneath me. I did not have a sensation of being lifted so much as of a ballast bag’s having been cut away. The whole moment, if it even happened, can’t have lasted very long, because by the time my grandmother came to retrieve me, Fred and I were sitting on the floor of his room, and I had just broken his View-Master by jamming in two reels at once. She stood in the door, with Mrs. Magruder in the hallway behind her. My grandmother’s arms were tucked up under her bosom, and she was nodding her head in a way she had—it could look bitter, or triumphant, or both at once—whenever her judgment was confirmed by events.
“What did I tell you?” she said.
This story, never collected, first appeared in the Washington Post Magazine. The Tablet Longform newsletter highlights the best longform pieces from Tablet magazine. Sign up here to receive bulletins every Thursday afternoon about fiction, features, profiles, and more. To read more Tablet fiction, click here.