Chapter 3 of The Art of Folding Wax Paper by David Castlewitz
The newspaper Mickey wanted to make would be two pages in length. Uncle Tony had given him several yellowing sheets from the pile of scrap paper he kept under his work table and Mickey thought he’d print ten copies to give to his teacher and friends, Uncle Tony of course, and maybe even to Marsha Herlicksmann. It wouldn’t be as elaborate as the mimeographed newspaper he worked on at school, but he thought he could make it interesting.
To print his newspaper he had a kit with rubber letters that slid into the grooves of a six-line wood block. Mickey planned the front page story to be about the school field trip and he assembled the 4 paragraph news article one paragraph at a time, inked the letters with the ink pad that came with the kit, then carefully stamped the paragraphs onto ten sheets of paper. When the front page story was complete, Mickey let the ten sheets of paper dry while he scribbled out the back page article, which he thought would be a story about giant light beams attacking the Earth from outer space.
When his story was finished and he had set the type for the first paragraph, he found that the stamp pad didn’t have enough ink. This had happened before and Uncle Tony had shown him what to do. He just needed to pour ink onto the pad. Not so much that it soaked the squishy material and made a mess; just enough to saturate it.
He opened his bedroom door and peeked into the kitchen. Mom was reading the newspaper. Since the argument that morning, she and Uncle Tony hadn’t said anything to one another. Uncle Tony had gone to the corner bar and had returned midday. He wasn’t drunk, as he sometimes would be when he went out at night, and Mickey was glad of that. But he wasn’t happy, either. He didn’t care that Mickey had minded the store all day and had taken in seven dollars-plus-change.
Mom washed clothes, swept and dusted the apartment, and went shopping at Herlicksmann’s for a few things to make dinner. She also went to the butcher and came home with hamburger meat. Now, while reading the newspaper, she sipped beer from a fruit juice glass. When it was empty, she poured herself another from the quart bottle at her elbow.
“You reading or what?” Mom asked when she noticed Mickey leave the bedroom.
“I’m working on my newspaper.”
“That for school?”
Mickey lied. “Sort of. You want to see?”
“I don’t care,” Mom said. “I’ve got a newspaper.” She resumed reading. She had the paper open to the movie section. “Maybe I’ll go see a movie. I can go downtown if I want.”
“Is Earl coming back?”
Mom shrugged. She gulped her beer, poured another. She swiveled around in her chair. Her body sagged inside her billowing housedress. “Where are you going now?”
“I need ink for my stamp pad.”
“Don’t make a mess.”
Mickey rushed downstairs, the stamp pad closed and clenched tightly in one hand. Uncle Tony was taking apart an electric fan. Mickey pulled open a drawer in the small chest on the table, where miscellaneous nuts and screws and washers were kept. He found the bottle of black ink and carefully refurbished the stamp pad. Finished, he hurried back upstairs and into his bedroom.
Mom stood at his desk. She fingered the drying sheets of paper. She picked up the scribbled story for the back page. She touched one of the rubber letters, got ink on her finger, and put it in her mouth.
“Did you read it?” Mickey asked, beaming.
“Where’d you get all this?” Mom asked.
“Did you take it from him?” Mom turned, her hair sweeping wildly across her face, her dress making a swishing sound.
“He gave it to me,” Mickey said.
“I’ll see about that. If you’re lying, you’re going to get it good.” She pushed past Mickey and stopped at the top of the stairs. She called to her brother. Mickey heard him ascend the stairs, then stop.
“I don’t know, Joanne. I guess I did. I’m busy down here.”
“You don’t know? I do. The little lying bastard.” She stormed back into Mickey’s room, grabbed the ink pad out of his hand and slapped him across the side of his head with it. The metal container fell from her grasp. Mickey instinctively stooped to pick it up, but a hand on his upper arm yanked him to his feet. He felt himself being flung backwards. He fell onto his bed and looked up as Mom came at him, her open hands flying back and forth as she hit him.
“What the hell are you doing?” Uncle Tony asked.
“He stole that thing from you. That stamp kit.”
“I told you, I gave it to him.”
“He stole it. The little bastard. The lying bastard. Stole it. Stole it.” Each word brought another slap, on the face, the arm, the back, the leg, the buttocks, the ribs and the mouth.
Uncle Tony pulled Mom away. Mickey scampered off his bed and got under it. Mom kicked his foot and he burrowed deeper into his hiding place. She lifted the small bed, pushed the thin mattress aside and lunged at him.
“Stop it!” Uncle Tony screamed. He pushed her away. “He didn’t steal it. Do you hear me? I told you, he didn’t steal it.”
“He’s a lying, stealing little bastard,” Mom shouted. Her mouth was open wide and spittle dripped from her lips, her eyes wet with tears that ran down her cheeks. She staggered out of the room with Uncle Tony pushing her. In the kitchen, she grabbed the near-empty quart bottle of beer and threw it at her brother. He punched her in the stomach. She doubled over, and scrambled away. She ran for the stairs.
Uncle Tony screamed obscenities at her from the doorway. Mom stood at the bottom of the stairs and screamed back. Mickey stayed in his room, afraid to go to either of the adults. He didn’t know whose side to take. The sound of breaking glass and the thud of something heavy hitting the floor rocked the apartment. Uncle Tony barreled downstairs, where he and Mom screamed at one another as they fought with words and fists.
When the police came, there was instant quiet. When Mickey heard the sirens, he guessed one of the neighbors had called them. That had happened several times before when Mom and Uncle Tony quarreled.
The police presence sent Mom and Uncle Tony to either side of the room, like boxers going to their corners between rounds.
The police talked to them. Mickey didn’t know what was said, because the police were calm and they didn’t speak too loudly and Mickey didn’t venture downstairs to overhear. But something was said that set Mom off again. Uncle Tony retaliated. Then, like once before, the police said they were taking Uncle Tony away. Mom continued to shout. Mickey froze when he heard a man’s voice say, “Shit, just take them both. Take ‘em both.”
Mom screamed. Mickey rushed downstairs and watched two policemen wrestle her out of the living room, then out through store. A red police wagon had pulled up outside. The doors flung open and another pair of policemen forced Mom in. Uncle Tony was nowhere to be seen. Mickey looked at the red squad car, expecting him to be in the back. He wondered if he was already in the police wagon and if he and Mom would continue the fight all the way to jail.
Neighbors stood on the sidewalk outside. Someone pointed at Mickey. A uniformed policeman returned to the store. “You alone here, kid?”
Mickey went outside to the squad car and got into the back seat. The police shut and locked the store door. How will we get back in? Mickey wondered. Does Uncle Tony have a key?
“Am I going to jail?” Mickey asked.
The driver, who had his cap off, chuckled. “Right to the penitentiary.”
“Whatcha in for?”
Mickey shrugged. “My uncle and my mom got into a fight.”
“What did you do?” the boy insisted. He was pudgy, with a hard face, a small, blunt nose, and tiny ears that were close to the sides of his head.
“I didn’t do anything,” Mickey admitted.
“I robbed a hardware store,” one of the other boys said, his huge grin uncovering yellow-brown teeth. “You had to do something.”
“Sit down, sit down,” a tall woman said as she came into the room, her severe eyes leveled at the boys. “Leave Mickey be.” Her laced boots and tweedy skirt and jacket looked like a uniform.
The half-dozen boys in the room took their places at the dining table, where Mickey had been told to sit. Two older boys entered the room and took seats at either end of the long table. It reminded Mickey of the Cub Scout camp he’d gone to one weekend. He had wanted to be a scout, but Mom had made him quit because she didn’t like the people who ran it.
More boys came into the dining room. They carried trays of food. There were roasted potatoes, sliced carrots, and a lumpy stew in a huge green pot. When the food had all been set on the table, the woman in charge said a brief prayer. When she nodded, the boys began helping themselves. Mickey didn’t want to stand and reach over and just grab what he wanted. He expected the bowls and plates to be passed around. But that didn’t happen and when the severe looking woman left the room, Mickey served himself like everyone else had. Since he was last, he got the bottom of the stew pot and the last of the potatoes. Luckily, there were lots of carrots left.
Mickey hadn’t seen either his mother or his uncle when he got to the police station. He hadn’t been allowed out of the squad car until two lady officers came along and transferred him to their car, which wasn’t red like the others. They introduced themselves as Officer Joyce and Officer Diane, but they didn’t tell Mickey where he was going.
The drive took them away from his neighborhood. Soon, he looked out and saw that they were driving alongside the river. He knew they were headed north because he went the other direction the few times he had visited his grandmother, and she lived in South Philly.
The streets were different in the north. The houses had lawns and were set far back from the pavement. As they went even further Mickey saw that there were huge homes with porches and lots of land on either side. He even saw fields with row after row of spindly trees and trellises. Soon, night came, like a shutter closing on a window. They continued with headlights illuminating their path and came to a road that ran alongside a tall, wrought iron fence. When they stopped at the gate, Officer Diane got out, spoke to the guard, and then returned to the passenger-side front seat. Officer Joyce drove slowly forward, past a squat, imposing brick building, past a few smaller ones, also of brick, and up a hill to a wooden house with a porch that wrapped around three sides.
Officer Joyce got out and walked up the steps and to the front door. A severe-looking woman answered. The two exchanged a few words. Officer Diane lit a cigarette and exhaled smoke out through the open window. Office Joyce turned towards the car and waved. Mickey noticed that the three women all had that same hawk-face look, and he thought of Mrs. Gills. They were all thin, with sharp noses, boney hands, and thin fingers tipped with wicked looking nails.
Mickey let himself be led to the porch by Officer Diane.
“Thanks, Mrs. Vance,” Officer Joyce was saying when Mickey reached her. “Beatrice House is packed.”
“I always make room when I have to,” the severe looking woman said. “Come on in, Mickey. You’re just in time for supper.”
“He’ll probably have to stay here a few days,” Officer Diane said. “I don’t know how long they’re keeping his parents, if there’s charges or if they’re going to make bail.”
“And he don’t have no relatives, does he?” Mrs. Vance said, putting her hand on Mickey’s shoulder. “Poor kid. Well, come on in.”
Mickey was ushered inside. He turned to say goodbye to the lady police officers, but the door had shut behind him. Mrs. Vance gently nudged him down the hall. Mickey sniffed. The narrow hallway smelled of cabbages. The floorboards creaked under his feet.
Now, he ate his supper quickly, imitating the other boys. As he ate, he learned that this was the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Home for Boys and that this house was known as the Vance House. He counted the number of boys at the table: thirty including himself. There were other houses on the grounds. The worse of them, the one they called The Cell Block, was in the brick administration building and was a real jail for juvenile offenders. If you didn’t behave at Vance House you served your sentence there.
Mickey didn’t want to admit he hadn’t done anything wrong. He didn’t have a sentence. He’d been whisked away. For how long? And where, exactly, was this house? How would Mom find him?
There was a television in the next room, but the Vance House boys needed Good Behavior Points if they wanted to watch. Being new, Mickey didn’t have any points so he was sent down to the basement where there were four group bedrooms. In addition to the two older boys who’d brought in supper, there were two uniformed guards. One was George, who had long black hair and looked like an Algonquin Indian. The other didn’t have a name tag, just a young, pock-marked face and bad breath. These two guards were in charge of the basement and its four bedrooms.
Mickey was taken into the smallest of the rooms, where six steel bunk beds lined the green, cinderblock walls. Caged light bulbs in the ceiling threw a harsh and glaring light. Each bunk bed had a wooden shelving unit standing next to it. Mickey was told he had the top bunk and the top two shelves for himself.
There were wooden trunks in the center of the room, each marked with a number corresponding to the beds. Some of the boys sat on the trunks to play cards. Others sat on their beds and read comic books. Two boys played checkers. They were all undressed to their shorts, which were uniformly boxer-style and white.
“Get ready for bed like everybody else,” Pock Marks told him. “This room gets to use the lavatory in 30 minutes, then it’s lights out.” Pock Marks glared at the boys. “Any of you gives me any trouble and I’m puttin’ Big Joe to work. No warnings this time.”
The boys in the room smirked at Mickey, their eyes straying from him to Pock Marks, who left, the door shutting with a lock click.
“Big Joe! Oh, no!” a boy said in a loud whisper, and laughed. Others laughed with him.
“Who’s Big Joe?” Mickey asked. A tall, lanky kid with short brown hair swaggered across the room and stopped at Mickey’s bunk. He put a foot up on the bottom rung.
“I’m Joe,” he said. “Wanna see how big I am?” He grinned. Mickey climbed to the top bunk. “This kid’s got holes in his shoes,” Joe said, grabbing at Mickey’s feet. He twisted one shoe around so everyone could see the worn hole in the sole.
Mickey pulled free.
“Better get undressed for bed or you’ll be meeting Big Joe yourself,” another boy advised. He sat on one of the wooden trunks and played cards. Mickey mouthed a “thanks” and wished the boy would introduce himself. He sounded friendly. He didn’t look as tough as the others.
Mickey slowly undressed, putting his shirt and pants under the pillow. He put his socks into his shoes, tied the laces together and dangled them from the top of the bed, next to the wall where they’d be out of the way. Wearing tight-fitting jockey shorts, he was out of place compared to everyone else in the room.
He pulled the blanket up and wrapped himself in it and sat with his legs dangling over the side of the bed. The friendly-looking kid put down his cards and came over to him.
“Put your clothes in the top shelf. Shoes, too. They don’t like you keeping your stuff in bed because then they can’t go through your clothes to see if you got anything you’re not suppose to have.”
Mickey did as the boy said. “I’m Mickey Arden,” he offered.
“Pete Jamieson,” the friendly boy said. Joe came over and Pete turned to him. “He’s my bunk mate. I’ll take care of him.”
“I just want to say hello,” Joe countered.
Other boys came up to Mickey. They all started to say their names, to pat him on the arm, to ask him questions; everyone talked and laughed at the same time. Mickey felt confused. He wanted to climb back into bed, but Joe and the others kept pulling him back down.
Finally, Pock Marks came back. “Let’s go, Room Four,” he shouted. “You’ve got 20 minutes to clean up, shit, do whatever. You, new kid…”
Mickey turned to him.
“Get a towel from the closet outside. And a toothbrush. Don’t lose it. You lose it, you don’t get another.”
Mickey stepped gingerly out of the room, slightly in front of the others. As Pock Marks turned away, someone snapped his towel at Mickey’s backside. It stung. Mickey yelped. Pock Marked whisked around, his thin face reddening.
“Who did that?”
No one replied. Mickey got a towel from the closet. He opened the drawers until he found one with tooth brushes wrapped in cellophane. When he went to the other end of the hall, he found the latrine. Its dark brown tiles were wet and slippery. Boys lined the walls, urinating into a porcelain trough that ran the length of the room. A few sat in the stalls, which didn’t have any doors. Others were at the sink, washing and brushing. Now and then someone snapped someone else with the end of a towel. One boy had a large red welt on his side. He kept rubbing it, tears in his eyes.
As soon as they returned to their room, Pock Marks turned off the lights. Mickey climbed up to his bed and got under the thin blanket. There was a chill in the room. No windows, he realized, though he pictured the trees waving in the wind outside and the moon a bright sliver of yellow amid the stars. Cold weather was coming. With it would come snow and days off from school. Mickey shut his eyes and wondered if he’d ever see Mrs. Gills classroom again.
Elsewhere in the room, boys mumbled their prayers, whimpered, complained that everyone better be quiet, or just fidgeted in their bunk so that the springs creaked. Soon, the noise died down. Mickey lay quietly, thinking about school and Mrs. Gills and the newspaper he wanted to make. A form rose up beside his bed. A hand touched his back.
“You okay?” Pete asked. “You scared?”
“No,” Mickey whispered. He felt the hand on his buttocks. Pete patted him gently, like a mom assuring a baby.
“If you’re scared, you can come on down here and sleep with me,” Pete whispered.
“I’m fine,” Mickey said. He wanted to brush Pete’s hand away, but he didn’t move. He felt fingers dig into his skin, which was protected only by a thin layer of cotton. He squirmed a little.
“Like that?” Pete asked.
“I want to go to sleep,” Mickey said.
“Remember,” Pete said. “You get scared, you come on down to me.” He withdrew his hand. Mickey felt the bed move a little. He heard the springs creak as Pete got under the blanket. It might be safer to sleep down there with him, he thought. Pete wanted to protect him, to help him. Eyes open and now accustomed to the dark, Mickey saw that a few boys were standing nearby, watching. Maybe they thought he didn’t see them. They stood in a line, their eyes on the bunk beds where Mickey and Pete lay. Someone else was near the door.
“He’s coming,” someone hissed. The boys scrambled back to their beds, but then the light came on and Joe was just climbing up into his.
Pock Marks walked up to Joe and pulled him down from the bunk. “Whatcha doin’? Huh, Biddle? Out for a walk?”
“Had to check something in my pants.”
“I’m going to check something for you.” Pock Marks pointed at the door. Joe started to cry. “Go on. To my office. Now.”
“I just had to check something. I wasn’t doing nothing wrong.”
“You want it worse than what you already got coming?” Pock Marks asked. Joe shook his head. Pock Marks turned off the light as he and Joe walked out of the room. A few minutes of quiet passed before Joe’s howl spilled into the quiet, along with the sound of a slap. There were five slaps, each followed by a cry.
“That’s Big Joe,” Pete whispered to Mickey. “Biggest damn paddle you ever saw.”
Sunday was Clean-Up Day. There was sweeping and mopping and scrubbing. Being the new kid, Mickey was assigned to the latrine. Pock Marks gave him a bucket and a brush and told him to get the latrine ready for inspection. “Do you know what to do?” Pock Marks asked.
“You ever clean the toilet at home?” Pock Marks asked. Mickey shook his head and Pock Marks threw him into a stall, grabbed him by the back of the neck and pointed his face down at the bowl. “Get every bit of shit wiped up. Use that brush. Screw it up and you’ll clean the toilets with your tongue.”
Mickey worked furiously once Pock Marks left. He scrubbed with the brush. He used toilet paper to wipe the grim off the walls. He filled his bucket and worked on the tiled floor, the shower walls, and between the mirrors. When Pock Marks returned, Mickey stood cringing, hoping he’d done a good job.
Pock Marks didn’t complain. Later, Mrs. Vance, the guard named George, and a man in a dark suit walked downstairs and checked the bedrooms and the lavatory and the hall with its closets and doors.
Satisfied that the rooms passed inspection, Mrs. Vance congratulated everyone on keeping Vance House “up to snuff” as she put it. Now they’d all enjoy an hour of Church and “get some wisdom from the Good Book.” Mickey grimaced at the idea. He wasn’t sure what to expect. He’d been inside the Catholic Church where Uncle Tony sometimes went, but he never stayed for more than a minute. A Jewish boy in the neighborhood once took him to his church, but everyone spoke a language he didn’t understand so he really didn’t know what was going on. At the Cub Scout camp they had am outdoor chapel, which was something like a church, and they sang songs about God and Jesus. What would church be like in jail? he wondered.
The guard named George brought a package wrapped in brown paper into the room. His keys rattled when he walked. His long black hair, tied in braids, dangled to his shoulders. He had lines under his dark eyes and his thick nose was decorated with twisted red veins that stood out against his dark skin.
“Who’s the new kid?” George shouted. Everyone pointed at Mickey. “White shirt to wear.” He tossed the package in Mickey’s direction. Pete caught it and handed it up to him. The other boys were changing out of their regular clothes and putting on white shirts and dark dress pants. Joe moved gingerly. He had showed off his swollen buttocks that morning. His skin was marked by purple blotches, but Mickey thought the big paddle didn’t inflict any real damage. His uncle’s razor strop, wielded by his angry mom, did worse.
With his old, worn shoes, dirty corduroy pants and clean white shirt, Mickey didn’t quit fit with the other boys. But he got into line like they did and marched with them into the hall, where they joined the rest of the boys of Vance House, and ascended the stairs in double file, and left the house to stand in loose formation on the lawn. Everyone but Mickey had a light jacket on. The air was cold, though the sun shone. Mickey shivered a little. He wished he had had a chance to grab his jacket, but the police hadn’t even asked him if he wanted to come with them. They had just taken him, arrested him, like they did Uncle Tony and Mom.
Before they turned to march to the administration building, with George leading the way and Pock Marks walking alongside to keep stragglers from falling out of the group, Mrs. Vance brought Mickey a sweater. “Be sure to give it back,” she said.
“Thanks,” Mickey said with a smile. He slipped the sweater over his head. It smelled of tobacco, which reminded him of home. That was comforting. He swung his arms back and forth, thinking of soldiers on parade, and looked around and saw other groups of boys streaming from their cottages and converging on the paved area outside the large administration building. Suddenly, he noticed that there were girls in two of the groups. A few waved surreptitiously, but got caught anyway and were slapped by the women guarding them.
“Is that the cell block?” Mickey asked the boy next to him.
“No talking,” Pock Marks bellowed.
The doors to the large building opened and each group took a turn walking inside, where they were directed by uniformed guards to doors on the right or the left. Those doors led into a huge room with a vaulted ceiling, rows of pews, an altar up front with velvet drapes and velvet covered tables, a wooden podium occupied by a man in a suit and another man dressed in a priest’s frock. A tall cross dominated the area behind the podium. The cross was wooden and set in a block of concrete and set against the wall.
“Is this a church?” Mickey asked, not meaning to speak out loud and instantly regretting it, afraid he’d be caught by Pock Marks.
“Whatcha think it is?” Joe said.
“Quiet, Biddle,” Pock Marks said. “I’ve got my eye on you.”
The boys sat, with Pock Marks on one end, George on the other. Mrs. Vance, along with other men and women, sat in a row up front. The other boys were grabbing at the hymn books in the racks in the pews. Mickey took one, opened it, flipped through the pages. He was relieved to hear the man in the suit at the podium speak in English when he said, “All rise.”
The church service lasted about an hour. Afterwards, once they returned to the house, the boys were told they had the rest of the day free. They could go to the playground if they wanted. There would be a movie in the Administration Building at 5PM for everyone who had the correct number of points. Lunch was buffet-style, which meant they didn’t have to sit at the table. TV was available and the library was open.
Without any kind of account and not yet part of the points system, Mickey couldn’t go to the movie or watch TV. He did walk to the playground, which was protected by a cyclone fence, and played on the monkey bars for a while. He stopped to watch a touch football game, but didn’t join in because the boys playing were all older and bigger than himself.
Back at the Vance House, he found the library, which was a small room on the second floor, next to Mrs. Vance’s room. There were a lot of books for 3rd graders and younger, only a few comic books – none of the adventure kind that Mickey liked – and a couple of science fiction magazines. Mickey wanted to take one of the magazines back to his bunk where he could lie down and read like he did at home, but George caught him and told him he had to read in the library.
By the time Mickey finished the magazine, having read each of the eight short stories and both of the longer ones, it was seven o’clock and time for supper. As he left the library, he heard his name called. It was Mrs. Vance.
“My sweater?” she asked. “Did you forget?”
Mickey shook his head. His face turned red. He wondered if she’d tell Pock Marks. Not returning the sweater immediately was as bad as forgetting to give Mrs. Delmarco her change. Quickly, he slipped the sweater up over his head. The chill air in the house hit him and he drew in a deep breath, but that just made his chest ache.
“It is chilly, isn’t it?” Mrs. Vance said. “I better ask Mr. George to light a coal fire tonight.” She smiled when he handed her the sweater. “Are you going to our school tomorrow?” she asked.
Mickey shrugged. He guessed she wasn’t as angry about the sweater as he thought. Still, she might be laying a trap. Sometimes, Mom did that. Mom acted like she wasn’t angry or didn’t even know about something he’d done or homework he’d not turned it or a test that he’d failed, but suddenly, after a few sweet words, she’d scream at him and reveal the truth and lash out at him, punishing him for whatever he’d done or hadn’t done.
Mrs. Vance continued to smile. “I’ll bet you’re in the fifth grade.”
“Yes. I am.”
“We have fifth, sixth, and seventh, all in one room. It works out. Most of our boys are older, already in Junior High or above.”
“Do I have to go to school?” Mickey asked.
“Of course. You like school, don’t you?”
“I mean, do I have t’stay here for – for a long time?”
Mrs. Vance smiled again. “I don’t know.”
“What’s happened to my mom?” Mickey asked.
“I don’t know. I imagine she’s in jail. You wouldn’t be here if your mom and dad weren’t both in jail.”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“Whoever that man was, then.”
“Okay. Uncle.” She smiled again. Her eyelids flickered. “With your mom in jail, we’ll just have to take care of you, now won’t we?” She put her hand on his thin shoulder and squeezed. Her sharp features bore into him. Mickey tried to smile, but he felt frozen and unable to move, unable to change the shape of his lips or twist away or lean one way or another.
Later, in bed, Mickey waited for Pete to invite him down to the lower bunk, but the invitation never came, so he didn’t have to refuse Pete again, and he was soon asleep and dreaming of the Fels Planetarium and the sea of stars. In his dream, he was in a dungeon and his fellow prisoners crowded against him, but there was no ceiling so they looked up at the sky. Soon, the dungeon became his classroom at school and Mrs. Gills was telling everyone that he was a bastard and his mother was a whore.
The next morning, Mickey was ready for his new school. But, when the other boys were ordered outside to line up for the march to the administration building, Pock Marks took Mickey aside and told him to go back to the basement room.
“I didn’t do nothin’,” Mickey complained.
“Shut up. No talking,” Pock Marks yelled. Mickey sat on one of the wooden trunks in the middle of the room and listened to the other boys trudge upstairs. Whatever Pock Marks had in store for him, he’d show him he could take it. Judging by the effect Big Joe had on Biddle, Mickey didn’t think the paddle was anything to fear.
“Come on,” Pock Marks said, and crooked a finger at Mickey. “Got all your stuff?”
“Yeah. Stuff you came with? Clothes? Whatever you brought.”
“Just this,” Mickey said, indicating his pants, shirt and shoes. But the white shirt wasn’t his to keep, was it?
“Well, get upstairs. Your uncle’s here to take you home.”
Mickey smiled. He started to run, but Pock Marks caught him by the shirt collar and warned him against running, so he had to walk, but quickly, up to the front room, where Uncle Tony sat in one of the huge armchairs by the fireplace and drank coffee with Mrs. Vance.
“Uncle Tony!” Mickey flung himself into his uncle’s arms.
Tony stood, caught the boy and hugged him.
“She had to go to work. Come on. I’ve got the station wagon outside.” Tony glanced at Mrs. Vance. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“Bye, Mrs. Vance,” Mickey called. “Bye.” He wished he could say goodbye to his friends, to Joe and Pete and the others, even Pock Marks. Once he was in the front seat of his uncle’s station wagon and pulling away from Vance House, and driving past the huge administration building, Mickey’s smile became even broader. “I’m sure glad to be out of jail,” he said.
“That’s just a group home,” Uncle Tony said. “That ain’t no jail.”
“One of the boys told me he robbed a grocery store and that’s why he was there.”
“Don’t believe everything people tell you,” Uncle Tony said, and waited for the guard to open the iron gate. Soon, they were on the road leading to the river.
“You get along okay in there?” Uncle Tony asked, breaking the silence. Traffic started to get heavy. Buses belched and pulled out from the curb and cut off the cars. There were trolley-buses here. Like a bus, they didn’t ride on the tracks. Like a trolley, they attached to overhead cables for power.
“It was okay,” Mickey said.
“That lady said you were in with older kids, 12, 13-years-old.”
Mickey shrugged. He hadn’t asked anyone their age.
Uncle Tony patted his leg. “Just so I know you got along okay.”
Mickey brightened. “They were really great guys.” He looked out the window, anticipating the moment when the streets would become familiar and he’d once again be safe in his own neighborhood.
Later in the morning, Uncle Tony took him to school and signed him in at the office. During recess, and again during the walk home and back for lunch, Mickey watched warily for John Perry. There was no way to avoid fighting him, he knew. But, after spending two nights in jail – and he was delighted to learn that everyone at school was convinced he’d been locked in the Big House – he thought he could endure anything.
“Hey. Jail Bird.” John Perry stood at the open gate to the schoolyard. His little brothers were with him.
Mickey narrowed his eyes. He balled his hands into fists. If they had their fight here, right outside school, they’d both get suspended, so he didn’t think there was much to worry about.
“How was jail?” Perry asked.
“The food was rotten,” Mickey said.
“Yeah. I know. I got thrown in the clink once, too.” Perry and his brothers, joined by other fifth and sixth graders, ushered Mickey into the school yard, and assailed him with questions about his cellmates, the guards, if there were really dogs that chased escaped prisoners, and if anybody had been chained to the walls in the dungeon.