We were in Grandma Ethel’s dining room eating cereal. I sat at one end of the table slurping at a bowl of Captain Crunch. Milk had dribbled all over the funny pages I was reading. My cousin Tom sat at the other end, flipping through the Calendar section of Grandma’s L.A. Times newspaper, sipping leftover coffee that he’d swiped from the pot.
“Which one’s your favorite comic, Tom?” I asked him.
Tom drank the rest of the milk from his bowl and kicked out his chair, causing a squeak from off the linoleum floor.
Tom looked up from his paper. His black hair looked thick and greasy. Neither of us had gotten haircuts all Summer. He sighed. “I don’t read those comics. I read serial issues.”
“What’s that? Like Superman?” I got up and carried his bowl and spoon to the kitchen and then came back to the table and picked up the comics section. I went over to Tom’s side leaned against the adjacent counter top. “Well I like these funnies,” I said. “My favorite’s Blondie. I like when he makes the huge sandwiches.” I shoved the newspaper in his face.
“That’s dumb,” said Tom. “Have you ever read any Frank Miller?”
“Which one does he—Ooh! I want to cut this one out.” I jerked the paper back to get it to fold. In the kitchen I grabbed a pair of scissors and began cutting out a Family Circus comic. Jeffy, the boy in the cartoon, had traveled throughout his entire neighborhood and his entire path, including loops and other wild turns through clotheslines, tree houses, over fences, doghouses, and car hoods, were marked with dotted lines. After I finished cutting out the comic I gave Tom a closer look.
“Family Circus is so lame.”
“Not always. I like these ones with the dotted lines,” I said. “I like how he goes across all the yards. That would be fun.”
“It’d be fun to make a course like that.”
“We do that stuff all the time in Colorado,” said Tom. He got up, walked to the window in the living room, and looked out at Grandma’s neighborhood. “I bet we could do it here. I’ll plan it out.”
I joined Tom at the window. That was our fourth Summer at Grandma’s house in Joshua Tree. We were ten, the Summer my parents broke up. Not much seemed to change in the desert from year to year, just little things. A cute girl about our age had moved in next door with her family and the old people down the street with all the dogs seemed to have even more in the yard. Mom said we were good company for Grandma and it gave me something to do since she and dad had to work all the time. We were living in L.A. in ’92, so mom drove and visited some weekends. Around the corner from Grandma Ethel’s house was Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane’s house where Ivan and Vicki, more cousins, lived. Vicki was older than all of us and we rarely saw her that Summer, but Ivan was about two years younger Tom and I and offered us most of the fun available in the desert.
I could see the antennae on his uncle’s roof. “Isn’t Ivan supposed to come over today?”
Tom turned from the window. “I think Aunt Jane’s going to drop him off after they have church,” he said. He grinned widely. “He goes to church every Sunday.” The he burst into a spirited laugh.
“When’s that over?”
Tom shrugged dismissively and returned to his gaze.
I went down the hall to ask Grandma about Ivan. When I returned to the living room I found Tom sprawled across the couch watching cartoons. I sat in the empty recliner, Grandma’s seat, and extended the footrest out. “Ivan’s supposed to be here in ten minutes,” I told him. I took a quick glance out the window, thought I saw someone coming down the street.
Tom didn’t reply. He continued watching the screen, laughing at the appropriate moments.
After a few minutes without any response, I spoke again. “Did you hear me? I said Ivan should be here soon.”
Tom finally looked over at me. “Good. He can help me plan and make maps. He knows the neighborhood better than either of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Family Circus thing,” said Tom. “The dotted lines. You said it’d be fun. Let’s do it.”
I was confused.
“I want to make a game of it, a race,” said Tom. He explained that he and Ivan would draw maps of the surrounding yards and then go out and find obstacles that they could jump over or use as landmarks for turns and whatnot.
I began to understand what he was getting at when I noticed Aunt Jane’s car in the driveway. I rushed out of the chair and to the front door just as she opened it from the outside.
“Hey there, Harp,” she said. “Where’s your grandmother at?”
With a smile, I pointed to the hallway and she disappeared down it. It was a minute or two later when Ivan, dressed in khaki slacks and a striped button-up shirt, finally came into the house.
“What took you so long to come in?” asked Tom.
Ivan pushed him out of the way to make a seat for himself on the couch. “I saw Lydia next door and wanted to say hi—Hey, what’s this show?”
I was still standing near the door, pretending to laugh at Ivan. It often seemed that Ivan enjoyed having been born and raised in the desert. But we, especially Tom, often poked fun at him for living in the middle of nowhere. Grandma Ethel’s house had a huge satellite dish that picked up hundreds of channels, but at Ivan’s house they only got a few channels that Uncle Bob picked up on the antennae. Ivan mostly liked to play out in the huge yard that Uncle Bob had, covered with Joshua trees and weeds and holes that we liked to dig in the sand sometimes. When he was inside he played with Legos, always. The kid loved Legos.
“This show is Rugrats,” said Tom. “Don’t you know anything?”
As usual, Ivan seemed to treat Tom’s sneering like a friendly handshake and just continued watching with a smile on his face. “What do you guys want to do today? I can bring over my Legos.”
“Ivan, I’ve a project for us around the neighborhood. But first ask Gamma or your mom if we can go out.”
“Okay.” Ivan eagerly jumped from the couch and headed to the hallway. I followed him and stopped him near the hall bathroom.
“Hey Ivan,” I said. “When you were talking to Lydia out there, did she…” I started whispering. “Did she mention me at all?”
“Ooh.” Ivan’s face lit up. “You know Lydia?”
“No. I’ve seen her next door. Maybe waved to her a few times. We’ve never met.”
Ivan looked baffled. “I can introduce you sometime. Her mom is my mom’s friend. Sometimes we go over there and they talk a lot. We get to play her Nintendo games though.”
I heard Tom calling me. After waving Ivan on toward their Grandma’s room I returned to the living room.
Ivan came back soon saying they could go outside. I told them I wanted to stick around and draw. I was secretly hoping I would see Lydia out the window and maybe talk to her. Ivan and Tom collected some pieces of paper and pencils. As they left the house into the bright day, I could hear Tom explaining his plan to Ivan, including an insult about the Family Circus. I wondered why Tom had to be so cruel sometimes.
Early in the afternoon Tom came back and took me into the bedroom we were sharing. He lightly closed the door behind him as if not to wake Grandma, who was napping in the next room. Tom asked me to close the blinds that I was standing near and peering out of. I accidently dropped them pretty fast, and Tom, looking busy preparing papers, sitting on the messy bed, must have heard the crash of the blinds against the sill.
“Hey goofball,” he said. “Be quiet, will you? You’re drawing attention.”
I leaned against the small wooden dresser and gave Tom the finger while pointing my tongue out at him. “Do something about it,” I said.
Tom was staring over toward the window. Harper turned to see what he was looking at. Daylight bled through the blinds, causing shadows to move across the room as cars drove by outside.
“Well, get over here and let’s get to business,” Tom said. I looked down at the dark carpeted floor and moped over to the bed. I sat at the foot of the bed, opposite Tom, trying not to make eye contact. Putting a pillow between me and the wall, I made myself as comfortable as possible. Tom flipped through some pages marked up with words, numbers, shapes, dotted lines, and some little symbols that I couldn’t quite make out as anything with which I was familiar. The ceiling fan squeaked as it spun at a low speed.
“I’ll try to explain this simply,” he said.
I looked up.
“I made some maps of the whole neighborhood and I think I’ve found our route.”
I slid off the bed, walked back to the window. I pulled the blinds back from the window a little and peered out. Tom continued speaking.
“I think we should do a few trial runs, at night of course, to avoid any early problems.”
“When are you planning to do this?” I asked.
“The trials? Tonight if you can find us a flashlight. We should find others to help. That’ll be your job. Or you and Ivan.”
Still looking out the window, I noticed Lydia and her father next door. Her long, blonde hair fell just past her shoulders onto a blue dress. Her father wore a fancy-looking suit. They walked from the front yard to the back yard, and as she passed through their wooden gate, I thought that she made eye contact with me. As their gate closed, I realized that Tom was standing right behind me and had been speaking to me.
“Look if you’re not going to pay attention or help, then get out of here and let me finish this.” Tom still held his paperwork in his hand as if he was so important.
“I’m sorry. I want to help.” I shook my head, trying to focus thoughts.
“Go out front. Ivan knows what to do.”
Outside Ivan was sitting in the dirt with a spoon, carving trails for 4×4 Hot Wheels. He squinted up at me as I approached him.
“Can you get me a glass of water and help me dig some tunnels for these?” he asked.
I looked down at him. He seemed so small, dirt at the edges of his innocent smile. “Sure, kid. Be right back.”
When I came back with some water, along with another spoon for myself, Lydia was standing over Ivan watching him dig. “Harper, I told Lydia to come over because you wanted to meet her,” said Ivan.
Lydia’s cheeks quickly flushed with a light cherry color and she quickly looked down to her twitching feet. “I always see you waving to me,” she said. “But you never come talremk.”
When she looked back up at me, I noticed that her eyes. They looked like the pale blue sky behind her showing right through her head. I’d never seen eyes so remarkable. From her yard, I heard a female voice call for her and the chug of a car starting.
“I have to go to the market in town with my family. Next time it’s okay to say hi.”
I figured my cheeks were probably nearly as red as hers at that point. I was only able to smile and reach out to shake her hand before she turned her attention to Ivan.
“See you later, squirt. Don’t ruin those tunnels before I get to see them.” She left. When her parents’ car pulled out of the driveway she smiled and waved to us. Ivan, seemingly oblivious to anything else, continued playing in the dirt.
“Aren’t we supposed to be helping Tom with his obstacle course thing?” I asked.
“I already showed him around the neighborhood. He told me he had important paperwork to do and that I was too little to understand and that I’d better just play with my Hot Wheels,” he said. “So I did.”
“You shouldn’t let him be so mean to you.”
“I don’t mind it.” He kept on digging.
Over the next few days Tom kept showing me up to date maps with the path marked by dotted lines. Each map became more detailed as each path became more complicated. Whenever I thought he was finally going to move on to something else there would be a new map or Tom and Ivan would return from another surveying trip through the neighborhood. Meanwhile I had been on the lookout for Lydia, having finally come up with the courage to try to talk to her again. It always seemed like no one was home, and when they were she never came outside. On Friday night I was finally presented with the official map and path.
“Ivan and I ran through it today. You see here…” Tom pointed to a back yard on the map. “That’s the McKenzie’s slide. They have a loose board in their fence here and if you pull it back you can go through and then go up and down the slide and run along the house to the front yard and cross the street…” I had to admit I was impressed.
Just before we went to sleep that night Tom whispered to me in the dark. “I really wanted to do something fun this summer. We haven’t done anything but watch TV. When you cut out that comic and I got that idea, I don’t know, I just think it would be great.” Tom may have said more. He may have talked all night: apologizing for how he talked down to Ivan just because he was smaller; confessing that he too liked to read the funny pages sometimes, at least the Sunday ones; laughing after a dirty joke he’d learned back in Colorado; or maybe, even, sobbing, softly, a secret that I had never known about him, and never would, because I had fallen asleep before I could hear Tom say anything else.
When I woke the next morning I was alone in the room. The blinds had been pulled up, revealing a cloudy day outside. After rubbing my eyes a few times I noticed Tom outside in the dirt driveway with Ivan. Tom clutched his paper work while Ivan was carrying his tub of Legos. Ivan stopped whatever he was doing and waved to me with a wide toothy grin. Tom then began to pull him down the road, out of view.
I was about to open the front door when Tom came barging through it. “Way to sleep in. I opened the blinds hoping it would wake you. It’s nine o’clock. Are these kids going to be here or what?”
I was taken aback by Tom. “This thing’s not ‘til eleven. What’s your hurry?”
“No hurry. It just seems like no one wants to work with me. You just woke up and Ivan came over with his Legos wanting to play,” said Tom. “But I’ve got him going over the course now, making sure it’s all in place.” He pushed past me, walking further into the house toward our room. He turned back. “Just make sure those kids show up and that they’re ready in time.”
At about 10:45 a bunch of boys started showing up in Grandma Ethel’s front yard, just as I’d promised Tom. After a while there were fifteen or so kids standing around, kicking their feet into the ground. Some of them began to wrestle and yell out, getting louder and louder as if to drown out the others. Dust was flying everywhere.
Tom hadn’t come out of the house yet when I saw Lydia over in her yard with her dog on a leash. I looked around at all these kids and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to just step over to the next yard. When I approached her I immediately tried to speak, but it came out a stammer. “H-hi. How ar-are y-you?.” My cheeks must have instantly brightened at the attempted greeting.
“Hi Harper,” she said. “What’s going on over at your grandma’s house? Why are all those boys over there?”
“My cousin Tom is planning an obstacle course.” I looked at her hair. It curled at the ends and seemed to float as a breeze swept between us.
“I’m walking my dog. I’m not allowed to go further than just down there.” She pointed her finger down a few blocks. “Do you want to walk with me?”
I looked at her and then down to her little brown dog and then back over to the crowd of boys, who were now wrestling and climbing all over each other, loudly of course, all the more wildly. I knew I was supposed to be helping Tom, but at that same moment I saw Tom walking up from the house to all those kids. “Yeah. Tom’ll take care of them. He doesn’t need me,” I told her.
“Aren’t you going to do the course thing?”
“It’s more sort of his thing. I’d rather walk with you.”
We walked down a few blocks until our houses were just almost out of sight and then turned around to retrace our steps. For most of the walk I was being shy, and I let Lydia do the talking. Mostly about her friends and what they were doing this summer while she was stuck at home with her mom. She’d look over me and it was as if I didn’t hear anything. I just stared into those pale blue eyes. When I did finally speak I talked about playing with Ivan and Tom and how I liked spending his summer with my cousins. I told her about life in Los Angeles. The more we walked, the more relaxed I felt.
As we were returning I could hear a screaming across the sky. Once I saw what was happening, noticing most of the kids dispersing about the neighborhood, down streets and through yards, I realized they weren’t on any obstacle course. They were entering houses, stopping and playing in other yards. Lydia and I got to Grandma Ethel’s house, finding Tom down on his knees sobbing.
“I’d better go home,” Lydia said. She gave me a little hug and walked her dog over and into her house.
I stood over Tom. His messy clump of black hairs were shaking, and his breath was heavy. “What happened? Hey, where’s Ivan?” I asked.
Tom looked up with a soaked, pink face. “None of those dumb kids would listen to me,” he said. “Where were you?”
I wanted to tell the truth, that I’d walked off with a girl instead of helping him, but I knew that it would just upset him more. “Let’s go inside.” I helped Tom up and we walked back to the house with an arm around each other.
“Yeah, it was a dumb idea anyway. Stupid Family Circus,” Tom muttered.
When we got inside the house Ivan was in the living room sitting in the center of scattered Legos. His whole bucket’s worth was poured all over the carpet. He looked up at as and asked, “Want to play Legos?”
Tom looked over to me and turned back to Ivan. “Sure,” he said. “But maybe we should invite Harper’s little girlfriend.”
I laughed and we joined the Lego builder on the floor.