From a drawer in Grandma’s kitchen I grabbed a pair of scissors and began cutting out a Family Circus from the Sunday funnies. Jeffy, the boy in the cartoon, had traveled throughout his entire neighborhood; his entire path, including loops and other wild turns through clotheslines, tree houses, over fences, doghouses, and car hoods, was marked with dotted lines. After I finished cutting out the comic, I showed the comic to cousin Tom who was flipping through the Calendar section.
“Family Circus is so lame,” he said.
“I like these ones with the dotted lines,” I said. “I like how he goes across all the yards. That would be fun.”
“What?” He had already turned his attention back to his part of the paper.
“It’d be fun to make a course like that. Maybe even map it out.”
“We do that stuff all the time in Colorado,” said Tom. Then he shot up and walked to the window in the living room where he seemed to be examining the neighborhood. “Yeah. I bet we could do it here. We’ll need Ivan to help plan it out.”
I joined Tom at the window. We were both eleven, the fourth summer we spent together at Grandma Ethel’s house in Joshua Tree. Mom said us kids were good company for Grandma and that it gave me something to do all summer. Not much seemed to change from year to year, only little things like I was a little taller than him this year, a pretty girl about my 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. The girl was what I thought about the most. Tom had spent the last few weeks talking about his girlfriend back in Colorado and I wanted to have my first girlfriend.
Around the corner from Grandma Ethel’s house was where Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane and Ivan and Vicki, more cousins, lived. Vicki was older than all of us and we rarely saw her that summer, but Ivan was a few years younger than Tom and I and offered us most of the fun available in the desert. Everyday I hoped that I’d see that girl and go talk to her, but Tom and Ivan kept me distracted with big projects or games and toys and TV. 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 antenna. I could see the antenna on my uncle’s roof from the window in Grandma’s living room.
“Isn’t Ivan supposed to come over today?” I asked.
Tom turned from the window. “Aunt Jane will to drop him off after they have church.” He grinned this evil smirk he seemed to have developed over the last year. It reminded me of a bad guy from a Batman comic book. I think that’s where Tom got it from. He acted tough, but I’d seen him cry before. “He has to do church every Sunday like a good wimp.”
“When does that get over?” I asked.
Tom shrugged dismissively, returning to his gaze over the neighborhood.
I went down the hall to ask Grandma about Ivan but she wasn’t sure when he’d arrive. Her room smelled like the school library and she was watching a soap opera. It always smelled like that and she was always tucked back there watching something on TV. When I returned to the living room Tom was 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, guessing. 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 dotted lines,” he said. “You said it’d be fun. Let’s do it. I was thinking you stay here and try to figure out how to get other kids around here to come do it too.”
I was confused. What kids to do what?
“Make a game of it, a race,” said Tom. He explained that he and Ivan could 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, just like Jeffy in the comic. It sounded like the fun part but he wanted me to stay inside in order to, as he said, “rally the troops.” He was getting in over his head again.
I was beginning 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?” asked Tom.
Ivan pushed him out of the way to make a seat for himself on the couch and then started untucking his shirt. “I saw Lydia next door and wanted to say hi—Hey, what’s this show?”
The kid was easily distracted, especially when hanging out with the two of us. He was always in a great mood and wouldn’t let anyone bring him down. It seemed like Ivan enjoyed having been born and raised in the desert. But we, especially Tom, often teased him for living in the middle of nowhere; we were both from crowded neighborhoods with paved roads and stop signs. Ivan liked to play out in the huge dirt yard that Uncle Bob had, covered with Joshua trees and weeds and holes that we liked to dig in the sand sometimes. When Ivan 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. Ask Gramma 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. “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.”
“But she didn’t say anything about me?”
“Why should she? You said you’ve never talked to her.”
“I’m talking to you about her now, aren’t I?”
“I guess so,” he said. He looked down at his tiny red sneakers and then he broke out with energy again. “Hey, you should go talk to her sometime. She’s real nice.”
I heard Tom calling me. After waving Ivan on toward Grandma’s room I returned to the living room and we watched the cartoons. I wanted to ask Tom why I couldn’t go out with them to scope out the obstacle course, but I didn’t want to get him started. Whenever he had a plan going he would be grumpy to anyone who asked too many questions. Soon Ivan came back saying the two of them could go outside. I told them I was to stick around and draw. Since I was staying at the house I got to thinking that maybe I would see Lydia out the window and I could go talk to her like Ivan said. He and Tom collected some pieces of paper and pencils. As they left the house into the hot, 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.
Sometime that afternoon Tom came back and took me into the bedroom we shared. 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.
Now 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. Perhaps a car pulled into the house next door.
“Well, get over here and let’s get to business,” he said. I looked down at the dark carpeted floor and moped over. I sat at the foot of the bed, opposite Tom, trying not to make eye contact. I could’ve really cared less. First they wouldn’t let me go help them and now he was bossing me around. 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 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. Without looking up, 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. Have you found others to help? Remember. That’s your job. Or you and Ivan.”
Still looking out the window, I finally saw her. It was Lydia and her father. Her long, blonde hair fell just past her shoulders onto a blue dress. Her father wore a fancy-looking suit, but he had an angry look on his face. Every time I’d seen him, in fact, his face looked as if he were mad. 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. Just as I watched their gate close, 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 talk.”
When she looked back up at me I noticed her eyes. They looked like the pale blue sky behind her was showing right through her head. I’d never seen eyes so remarkable. From her yard, I heard her mother screaming for her and the chug of a car starting. Her mother was often yelling; you could hear her out in the street all the time.
“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.
“Thanks for getting Lydia to come over here,” I said.
“I don’t get what the big deal is. I always talk to anyone I want to even though sometimes my mom says not to talk to people we don’t know. I don’t know why talking to them is bad. And sometimes I forget who we know and don’t know. A lot of people look alike.”
I got down and helped him dig some more tunnels and he told me about some other kids in the neighborhood that we could get to run Tom’s obstacle course. There was Brenton Trevor, this kid three streets down that had a house with a lot of old tires out front; and Nick Taylor, a boy that had his left arm in a bright green cast all summer and whose dog always followed him around everywhere he went; Kenny Wallace still sucked his thumb and was hard to keep attentive. Ivan said he’d ask his dad if there were more kids in the neighborhood that he was forgetting. “It’s almost dinner time though,” he said. “We won’t be able to talk to them now.”
Over the next few days Tom kept showing newer and newer maps with the path marked by dotted lines that he had been developing. Each map became more detailed as each path became more complicated. It was far beyond Family Circus at this point, but the spirit, I supposed, was there. 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 over there, and when they were she never came outside.
Ivan and I went out Wednesday and Thursday, trying to find kids around the nearest six blocks or so. We mostly walked through the desert, play sword fighting with sticks we’d found. On Thursday I brought an old golf club I’d found in Grandma’s garage and used it as a hiking cane. Ivan and I would take turns hitting the fallen seeds from Joshua trees with it, watching the pieces scatter across the desert.
We found Nick Taylor and his small dog walking out there and told him about Tom’s plan. The dog kept jumping up on Ivan, so he stood back a few yards from us where the dog wouldn’t go. I’d never met Nick before, but he seemed alright. He agreed to do the obstacle course and knew some other kids that might want to do it too. He lived next to Kenny Wallace and would send the message over to him as well. We told him it would happen on Saturday at eleven in the morning beginning at our grandmother’s yard.
We never found Brenton Trevor, but on the way back to his house on Thursday afternoon Ivan remembered that that kid was going to New Hampshire for the summer to stay with his Aunt, another one shipped off for the school break.
It was getting dark when Uncle Bob gave me a ride back over to grandma’s house and I found Tom on the couch watching cartoons in the living room. He was playing a game where he responded to whatever characters on the screen were saying out loud. It was funny for a while, but then it started to get annoying when he wouldn’t let up. A little while later grandma made us dinner. After that he was normal, but he didn’t talk about the course at all.
We played a game of Monopoly. Ivan was supposed to come over, but he never arrived. Tom got really mad when I won the game after about three hours of play. He talked a lot about his girlfriend in Colorado, but he never said her name. He said he had a show box at home full of letters that she’d written to him in class. After he’d gone on so long I began to wonder if there really was a girlfriend or if he was just pulling bull on me to look cooler. I wouldn’t put it past Tom to have had a girlfriend before me though. If I would have accused him of lying he’d have been madder than losing a long game of Monopoly, and if I had mentioned Lydia he’d have just made fun of me somehow. So I just let him tell his stories whether they were real or not.
He was still up when I went to sleep, sitting at the little desk with the small lamp on. I’m not sure what he was working on. This was the third night he’d stayed up past me like this.
It rained the next day and I spent most of the day watching TV. In the afternoon Tom finally presented to me the official map and path of his obstacle course. “Ivan and I ran through it today. You see here…” He 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.
That night we went to sleep at the same time and 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.” He may have said more, but I fell asleep before I could hear him 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 paperwork 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 didn’t except Tom to be acting like this. “This thing’s not ‘til eleven,” I said. 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 and then 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, lead by Nick and his dog, 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. Besides, Tom had asked me to have those kids ready. They were ready.
When I approached Lydia I immediately tried to speak, but my voice came out a stammer. “H-hi. How ar-are y-you?.” My cheeks must have instantly brightened.
“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 at 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 this summer with my cousins. The more we walked, the more relaxed I felt. We stopped at the point she couldn’t go past and continued talking. I told her about life in Los Angeles and that I wanted to get a skateboard.
“Not so good out here, I guess,” I said, pointing down at the dirt road.
“Do you want to know why I am out here with my dog?” she asked.
“Aren’t you just walking it?”
“Do your parents ever fight?”
“I’ve never seen them,” I said. It was the truth. I’d seen them say rude things to each other often, even though they’d told me not to do such things, but they never fought.
“Mine fight sometimes. More like all the time lately.”
“What do they fight about?”
“Daddy always thinks mama is out cheating on him and he calls her names.”
It was quiet then for a moment and I didn’t know what to do or say. The small dog on the ground whimpered as a breeze came up. Lydia moved over quickly and grabbed me in a big hug. I put my arms around her back and squeezed her for a few seconds.
“Thank you for walking down here with me, Harper,” she said when she pulled back. She tugged on the leash and we headed back.
As we were returning we heard a loud screaming. I thought it might have been Lydia’s parents still going at it and it made me sad, but then I saw what was happening. I saw all those kids dispersing about the neighborhood, down streets and through the desert. 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 and found Tom down on his knees sobbing.
“I’d better go home,” Lydia said. She gave me another small 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?”
“Were you bossing them around like you do with everyone else?” I asked.
All he could do was tell me to shut up. I didn’t want to hear it from him . What he was crying over was nothing. He didn’t have any real problems. I ignored him and started walking away. I could hear him moving and soon he had jumped up on me and was hitting my back.
“It’s all your stupid fault,” he said. “If you would have been here and helped it would have worked.”
I was able to push him off, but by now I was feeling mad. I pushed him down when he came back at me and then I grab his neck in a head lock and pulled him down. “Tom. Stop it,” I said. “Get over it.” I forced him aside. He was flushed red and breathing heavy. Even his teeth were showing, but I knew wouldn’t do anything more. Part of me felt bad for him. He had worked really hard on the course. His attitude killed it in the mean time. I shouldn’t have hurt him, but I was glad that I’d gone with Lydia. I put out my hand in peace. “Let’s go inside,” I said. I helped him 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 us 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 Ivan on the floor.