Chapter One: Sophia
Once a month, Sophia and her mother took the train to New York City and transferred to a bus or subway line that delivered them to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Great-Aunt Sarah lived here, in a minuscule apartment three stories above the ground. Her building's elevator no longer functioned; visitors had to climb flights of dusty, uncarpeted stairs to get to her room. Footsteps reverberated through the entire building, accompanied by harsh breathing (going up) or fragments of conversation (going down). The seasoned old apartment dwellers had no trouble deciphering the code of the stairs. As Great-Aunt Sarah talked, she frequently interrupted herself to comment, "Thomas is home," or "My landlady has returned from shopping." Then, while Sophia and her mother wondered what Thomas looked like, Great-Aunt Sarah continued talking.
Great-Aunt Sarah was an invalid who could not leave her room. "She has not left that place for ten years," Sophia's mother reflected as she wrote her daughter a note to explain her absence from school. "God only knows what would happen to her if the house catches on fire." Sophia put the note with her books, to be taken to school later. She hated school, and was always willing to skip a day. Her older brother Brian had accompanied their mother to Brooklyn when he was Sophia's age.
For five years, however, he had refused to visit Great-Aunt Sarah. On the days his mother and sister disappeared, he went to the library after school. There he
completed his homework, composed music that he hoped would get him into Juilliard or Eastman, and reread novels about Lord Horatio Hornblower.
Once New York City smelled like dangerous country to Sophia, but her mother had taught her rituals to ensure safety. After emerging from Grand Central Station, they visited a private library that specialized in old detective stories. As her mother browsed in the stacks, Sophia examined a row of discarded books selling for twenty-five cents apiece. She rarely found a book she wanted to buy, but she was sure people who "knew" plundered the shelf for first editions. Then her mother telephoned Great-Aunt Sarah --"to warn her we are coming." They gathered up shopping bags full of candy, books, and fruit; her mother kept them in the pantry at home and filled them up for every visit. Then they plunged outside the library, walking fast and purposefully toward the holes in the ground that led to Brooklyn.
Great-Aunt Sarah always watched for them by her window. Looking upward, they tried to identify her peach brocade curtains, but often waved inadvertently to some other old woman. Great-Aunt Sarah not only lived in her room, she lived in a wheelchair. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. As Sophia and her mother climbed the stairs, they heard the squeak of the wheels on the linoleum as she maneuvered her chair so she could unchain the door. "It's me," Beatrice gasped with her lips close to the door. And then slowly the door opened.
Great-Aunt Sarah was seventy-five years old when Sophia was ten. She was a thin, beautiful old woman who anchored her white hair in a French twist. She always wore perfume, earrings, and complicated long dresses that looked fifty years old. An
embroidered shawl protected her neck from imaginary drafts in the hot, stuffy room.
"Beatrice," she greeted Sophia's mother, "it is so good of you to come. And Sophia--" The girl bent over to kiss her cheek. "You are growing so fast I hardly recognize you. Where is your brother--has he not come too?"
"Brian is so absorbed in his schoolwork," Sophia's mother lied, "it is impossible to get him to go anywhere these days."
"But of course, I understand everything," Great-Aunt Sarah said quickly. "Beatrice--and Sophia, my dear-- you must sit down and have tea. I asked Marta to purchase a cake for you at the bakery." She rolled her chair to a plastic and metal card table hidden by a lace cloth. Two folding chairs were set out. The room managed to appear small and crowded, although it was meagerly furnished with Great-Aunt Sarah's hospital bed and the massive black wood bookshelves she had brought from Hungary.
Sophia's mother was overweight. She waved the cake away and took out her cigarette case. She began to chain smoke, using the saucer from under an African violet for an ashtray. Great-Aunt Sarah gave Sophia a section of sticky coffee cake, and she looked down at it, not daring to eat it with her fingers.
"Sophia, tell me what your brother is doing," Great-Aunt Sarah said. "Why, I have forgotten to give you a fork, dear-- they are in the drawer next to you, Beatrice." Sophia's mother was forced to put down her cigarette while she rummaged in the drawer. When she turned around, the cigarettes had vanished. Great-Aunt Sarah held out a plate to her. Beatrice hesitated, then extracted another pack of cigarettes from her pocketbook, took them into the tiny bathroom and closed the door.
Great-Aunt Sarah served Sophia a cup of tea. "Tell me about your
brother, dear. Does Brian still practice the violin? Perhaps you play together: music for piano and violin?"
"No, Brian says I'm not good enough to play with him," Sophia answered. "But I've written a new poem, Great-Aunt Sarah." She reached into one of the shopping bags by her feet and brought out a piece of lined paper.
Great-Aunt Sarah smiled at her. "Please read it to me, Sophia. You know how my eyes are failing--"
Sophia read in a loud, clear voice: "Cloudburst."
"This is another poem about a horse," she explained.
"The pulsing heart of arid land
Grows louder as a cloud of dust
Spins o'er the ever-shifting sand
And cries of warning from the just
Rent restless air with purpose clear
For Cloudburst is here! Cloudburst is here!"
She read five more stanzas, then looked up.
"It is a good beginning, Sophia," Great-Aunt Sarah said. "I am sure that if you work very, very hard, you will become an excellent poet. Perhaps you could try writing on a theme other than horses?"
"I like horses," Sophia explained.
They heard the toilet flush, and Sophia's mother opened the bathroom door. She tried to smile. "You like to look at Sarah's books while we talk," she suggested.
Sophia nodded. She enjoyed opening and closing the sliding glass doors that protected these books. The titles were written in Hungarian, French
and Yiddish; she stared at each strange binding, then, when the words remained indecipherable, tried a new one.
After Sophia appeared to be absorbed in the books, Great-Aunt Sarah began a monologue in Hungarian. Sophia saw her mother nod and fidget; occasionally, she began to light a cigarette, but Great-Aunt Sarah knocked it out of her hand. They spoke in whispers.
"I can't understand when they talk so fast!" Sophia thought resentfully. But she knew they always discussed the same things: the iniquities of the practical nurse, Marta, who came every night to put Great-Aunt Sarah to bed, watch over her while she slept, and help her dress in the morning. Today, Sophia realized, they were also talking about Brian. The familiar name was repeated comfortingly while the Hungarian rolled by her ears. As their sentences grew sharper and faster, Sophia's mother began rooting in her shopping bags. She brought out a box of butter cookies, chocolate imported from Switzerland, and a Liberty scarf. Great-Aunt Sarah's voice grew more strident, her gestures more belittling. Sophia's mother seemed to unfurl and close like the beautiful striped umbrella she placed in front of her relative. At last Beatrice said in unusually accented English, "We must go now, Sophia, or we will not get home in time for dinner."
Preparing to leave required tremendous resolution. Great-Aunt Sarah passed them some more coffee cake. "You must eat, or the cake will grow stale, for Beatrice has given me these charming butter cookies. I shall enjoy them so much until I see you again." She wrote out a small check for Sophia and a slightly larger one for Brian. "Tell Brian I miss him-- I wish he would come and play his violin for me, as he used to."
When Sophia and her mother squeezed out the door, they clumped down the stairs as noisily as Belgian horses. "I have such a terrible headache," Beatrice whispered. Great-Aunt Sarah always managed to get her wheelchair to the window before they were out of the building. Sophia imagined her muttering, "On your mark, get set, go!" and racing across the room. They waved to her, having no trouble picking out her window this time, and hurried toward the hospital-green colored buses.
"Anya, why do you always fight with her?" Sophia asked as they stood in line to get on the bus.
"It's too complicated to explain," her mother said in an exhausted voice.
"I'll try to tell you when you are older."
"How can I be a poet if you never tell me anything?" Sophia grumbled. "Our family has too many secrets."
"It is no secret that many terrible things have happened to your great-aunt," Beatrice said. "Please give yourself a chance to be happy in life, Sophia, before it is time for me to tell you of such bitterness."
But Sophia felt she already understood why Great-Aunt Sarah was so angry. Her brother had told her that Great-Aunt Sarah used to own a monkey. When Brian visited, he played the violin, and the monkey, dressed in a velvet cap and jacket, turned in circles to the music. But the monkey died, and Brian no longer came to visit. "No wonder Great-Aunt Sarah is so unhappy," Sophia said to herself. "Maybe I could give her a kitten. They give kittens away at school sometimes." She imagined reciting her next poem to Great-Aunt Sarah while the kitten washed herself on the hospital bed.
As they climbed up the steps of the bus, Sophia wondered if a kitten would fit in a shopping bag.
Sophia wondered how her mother had memorized the huge halls of Grand Central Station. Even the dusty light trying to enter the terminal got lost between arrivals and departures; it was a defusing place, where strong personalities stood on line for a cup of coffee. Beatrice bent over a water fountain, gulping down two Tylenol tablets retrieved with difficulty from the morass in her pocketbook. Sophia did not like to watch her mother wipe the excess water off her slight mustache and the folds of fat under her chin. The fountain reminded her of school. She almost warned Beatrice that someone was coming up behind her to smash her face into the white porcelain and kick her in the butt.
Sophia was tired, but Beatrice insisted there were more things to do before they could go home. They visited a Hungarian store with a takeout counter, where they ordered sandwiches of thick, spiced meat on bread so crusty the first bite made Sophia's gums bleed. While Beatrice talked to the counterman, Sophia roamed the aisles filled with square tins of imported chestnut puree. She swallowed her saliva, wishing her mother wouldn't take so long. The counterman finished wrapping the sandwiches. Contemptuously he shoved the paper bag toward Sophia. She blinked. "Yours?" he asked Beatrice in Hungarian. "What happened to the boy who used to come here?"
"He stayed home today," Beatrice replied. "He has school, you know."
"Fine-looking boy," the counterman said. "A waste of time to send a boy like that to school. He ought to be out earning a living."
He grabbed the bag back from Sophia and put in a bar of imported chocolate. "Take that home to your brother," he ordered her. "See she doesn't eat it herself," he added to Beatrice with a cozy laugh.
Beatrice thanked him. It's the way I look, Sophia thought. Eyes the color of celery, hair the color of skeletons. Just like Great-Aunt Sarah. They can't see her, so everyone hates me. They think I'm an adopted Nazi.
Next they went to the bookstore for the London Times and a paperback for Sophia. She picked out a novel by Madeleine L'Engle with a flying horse on the cover. "Should I buy something for Brian?" Beatrice asked.
Sophia shook her head. "Whatever you get him he'll have read already or he won't like. He'll be mad at you and you'll be sorry."
Beatrice looked as if she wanted to bite off all her fingernails. She nearly collided with a man in a Stetson hat as she left the store with her head turned like a weathervane toward young adult fiction.
"You're sure he didn't mention any titles?"
"No, and he's getting the chocolate," Sophia reminded her.
"We only have ten minutes left. We'll miss the train if we try to do any more errands," Beatrice decided. They squeezed past the gates guarding the poorly lit passageway to the trains. This part of Grand Central Station reminded Sophia of a dungeon. She hung onto her mother's sleeve, afraid of clutching in error one of the men in trenchcoats carrying home The New York Times.
Beatrice never sat in the first car, preferring to stalk further down
the platform where the train was less crowded. They passed conductors and men selling snakes or hot dogs. The train seemed very long.
"Is this one good enough?" Sophia inquired when they came to a car inhabited only by women with briefcases.
"This is far enough. We'll have a seat all to ourselves," Beatrice agreed. They spread their coats out, settling in, the shopping bags a nest around their feet. Beatrice substituted her reading glasses for her distance glasses, pausing to rub the red mark left on her nose. She smiled at Sophia, and patted her hand. "There's a paper bag if you need one," she mentioned.
"I don't feel sick, Anya, but I'm not hungry anymore. You can have my sandwich." The shopping bags crackled and banged against Sophia's legs in a minor upheaval as Beatrice searched for napkins. Then she unwrapped the food and began to nibble, smoke, and read the Times.
Sophia leaned back, feeling the squeaking, jerking train subside into regular motion. She stared out the window. The darkness outside transformed the glass into a mirror and she thought she saw Great-Aunt Sarah peering in at her. But it was only her own reflection in black and white, stylized like the photograph on the back of a book. I wish I looked this way all the time, she thought. When I grow up, I'll have to wear mascara. I bet Great-Aunt Sarah wore it until her eyelashes turned gray. My eyelashes make me look like a white pig.
Beatrice ate both sandwiches and smoked half a pack of cigarettes without seeming to notice what she consumed. She took out a handful of coffee candies from the shopping bags and sat burping and sucking as she read.
We still have to have dinner tonight. Anya shouldn't eat so much, Sophia thought.
Beatrice bulged serenely in a man's sweater and shirt from England. A bulky gold wrist watch left a print embedded in her skin. The hems of her blue jeans were turned up two inches, fastened with safety pins; similarly, her waist-length black hair was pinned up out of the way. Beatrice's complexion was mottled and splotched with strange growths which had to be removed periodically by a dermatologist. In winter when she wore a stocking cap she could be mistaken for a man, as her facial hair was unusually long and bristly.
Since Sophia could remember, her mother's fat, like an adopted child, caused family battles. "It's simple enough. You're fat because you eat too much," her husband told her. "Go on a diet like all the other idiot women, for God's sake!"
Beatrice fidgeted through these outbursts. "You only care how I look after you talk to your mother," she said once. For a while, she clipped on heavy gold earrings, complaining they pinched her ears. She bought silk blouses to wear with her leftover maternity clothes. She stopped eating for two days, never appearing without a cigarette, and lost ten pounds.
"That's great, Bea, keep it up. You're starting to look like the beautiful girl I married," John encouraged. At night their lovemaking was more noisy than usual. Listening, Sophia thought it sounded as if Beatrice was being unwrapped like a big box of candy.
Then one morning Sophia came downstairs to find her mother chewing chocolate truffles before breakfast and wearing blue jeans again. It didn't take much-- a call from Marta or one bad grade on Brian's report card was enough-- to set her off, her appetite a clock ticking too fast.
Once Beatrice leaned down at a shoe store, poking the toes of brown loafers for Sophia, and overbalanced. She fell out of her chair, crash-landing like a ball thrown through a window.
"Anya! Are you hurt?" Sophia was terrified at the sight of Beatrice rolling on the floor. She pulled at her mother's arm, trying to lift her up; her mother was very solid.
"I may have sprained my ankle again," Beatrice murmured. "Will someone help us?"
Sophia looked around for the salesman. She discovered him on the floor next to her mother, crying with laughter, his tears dripping into an empty shoebox.
Some of the girls at school already shaved their legs. They wore makeup and stockings and earrings. Did their mothers tell them what to do with the same interest and concentration Beatrice lavished on finding collections of Greek myths for her children to read?
"Sometimes no one at school seems to know what I'm talking about," she remarked to her mother.
"People here," Beatrice said, not looking up from the Times. "You think they write poetry, like you? They're more interested in firming up their calf muscles."
"Then why do we live here?" The conductor called out the station, and Sophia helped to gather up the shopping bags. Everyone else getting ready
to get off looked pretty. Her brother said this was an American disease.
"For real people," her mother said, "you have to go to New York." Beatrice grunted as she stepped off the train. Her ankles ached.
"Without Murray shoes, Sophia, I would be just like Great-Aunt Sarah. I would never be able to set foot outside the house."
Sophia nodded. Her mother owned two pairs of Murray shoes, made by hand from a plaster cast of her peculiarly shaped feet. The black pair was for every day, the red pair for excursions. Every time they visited Great-Aunt Sarah, Sophia could tell when she started to scold Beatrice about her shoes, because "Murray" was the same in Hungarian as in English. "How long is a man expected to be loyal to a woman who wears Murray shoes?" John yelled once, but he had been married for sixteen years. Everyone in my family is strange, Sophia decided, and we encourage each other.
They drove to the library to get Brian. Sophia knew her mother's blood pressure was up; she hurtled through red lights, swearing in Hungarian at the traffic. "Idiot! You're going thirty-five when you could be going fifty!" she yelled. Sophia crouched low in the back seat. She checked that her seat belt was tightly buckled and pretended not to hear.
Beatrice zoomed into the "no parking" area in front of the library and sent Sophia in to flush Brian out. She found her brother in the stacks where the librarians couldn't see him, leaning back with his feet up on his carrel. "Time to go already?" he said, putting on his coat and grabbing his books. "Don't touch my stuff. I already signed everything out. You have a good time?"
"Sort of," Sophia replied. Brian nodded and followed her to the car. "I'm starving," he greeted their mother. "You get any books for me? Any records?"
Beatrice handed him the check from Great-Aunt Sarah and the candy
bar from the counterman. "No," she said with an accusing look at Sophia. "Next time, you better give me a list. I didn't know what you wanted."
"Well, I need stuff from Goody's but I really should pick it out myself. You never get me the right kind of staff paper, even if I write it down”
"Listen," he added, "I don't want to ruin your day or anything-- I know you're tired. But when we get home, I need absolute quiet. I'm going to make a tape.
"You know that book Stuart Little?" he said to his sister. "I was kind of reading it again, and I thought of some music for the part where Stuart talks to the telephone repair man. You want to hear it?"
"All right. It sounds good," Sophia answered. She knew all her brother's compositions by heart as well as he did. Every Monday after school Brian went into the city to study with a professor at Juillard, and the rest of the week he practiced. On most evenings, the house was sectioned off, with her father playing the Hayden Trumpet Concerto on a music-minus-one album in the basement, and her brother switching from piano to violin upstairs as he worked out a composition. Beatrice shut the door of her room and listened to Mozart, sometimes inviting Sophia in for tea and cookies. At its best, the atmosphere was prewar. Beatrice and Sophia hummed along, conducting, as John came to the increased tempo he could never handle, and huddled together when Brian howled "Shit!" at an unsatisfactory modulation.
"Jesus Christ, Anya," Brian said as they pulled into the driveway. "You almost hit that car coming so fast around the corner. Why don't you let me drive?"
The last restraining influence of Great-Aunt Sarah's presence flew
out the window. Beatrice was once again the woman who raised her children on Why I Am Not A Christian. "You want to drive?" she asked lyrically, drawing back her hand just before it contacted with Brian's mouth. She pulled the key out of the ignition and presented it to him with a flourish. "Just show me your license, and the new rose bushes to replace the ones you ran over, and the money to pay for what I loaned you so you could get the scratches off the car without telling your father--Ken men, meg men."
"What do you expect? I have to practice if I want to get my learner's permit. You should be happy I hit the rose bushes instead of a kid."
They walked into the house, arguing about intersections. Sophia hung her coat up. She retrieved her new book from Beatrice's shopping bag and went upstairs to her room. She closed the door, wondering if Great-Aunt Sarah would share her butter cookies with Marta or gloat over them.
"You can't have one, not even one. I'm going to eat them all in front of you." Sophia tried to imagine the two of them cutting their meat into tiny pieces, moving vegetables around their plates. After the chocolate mints, would Marta read aloud and Great-Aunt Sarah correct her pronunciation? She liked my new poem anyway, Sophia thought. She had tried writing to Great-Aunt Sarah between visits, but never received answers to her letters. Her eyes are failing, Sophia reminded herself. She's very old and frail.
"Sophia?" Her brother rapped at the door. "I'm ready to tape now, so keep it down, okay? Just stay in there with the door shut. I'll tell you when to come out. And would you mind taking care of Bartok? I hate it when he jumps on the piano and watches me."
"All right." Sophia opened the door a crack and received an obese Siamese cat. Bartok hung limply in her arms for a moment, realized he was locked up, and lashed his tail. He jumped on her bed, looking for some sign of birds outside the window.
There might be a little time after dinner when she could go outside to the stream that diverted itself through their yard. Woods overgrew on an
unlandscaped cliff behind the house. Deer were frequent visitors there. One night Sophia saw a turtle leave a glistening pile of eggs like Ping-Pong balls below some rocks. They disappeared by morning. Sophia was never sure if she had dreamed the whole thing or if raccoons gobbled turtle eggs instead of garbage that night.
After an hour, Sophia opened the door. She could not hear any music, only the metronome ticking. Through the banisters she saw Brian's back hunched over the piano. "Can I come out now?" she called.
He jumped. "Oh. Yeah. Sure."
"Bartok fell asleep on my bed. With his head on the pillow. But when I opened the door he ran out and jumped in the bathtub."
"I forgot to tell you I stopped taping. Dad'll be home any minute, and I figure he'll walk through the door and fuck up my recording." He yawned.
Sophia came the rest of the way downstairs. She looked through the curtains, expecting to see the headlights of her father's car. Across the street, she saw two children tossing a balloon back and forth, leaping over a chair and matching hassock in their living room. Their mouths were open. They must be laughing, Sophia thought.
"Did you lock Anya up too?"
"No, she's in there cooking. She needs something from the garage. Do me a favor, go down there and fetch it like a good kid. Thanks."
"What does she need?"
"I don't know. You'll have to ask her."
Beatrice was not cooking, she was talking in rapid, pointed Hungarian
on the telephone. She covered the mouthpiece with her hand as Sophia came in. "I asked Brian to bring up two cans of corn. Before he started taping. An hour ago."
Talk slower, Sophia thought, but her mother motioned her out of the
kitchen. Why was Anya upset? It must be Marta on the telephone. Sometimes after Sophia and Beatrice visited, Great-Aunt Sarah refused to eat her dinner.
The table was set with the few pieces of Wedgewood that had survived Sophia's and Brian's childhoods, mixed with eighty-nine cent plates from the supermarket. In front of each plate a steel contraption held a book, preventing it from falling into the food. Sophia had already inserted her new novel, and Beatrice was rereading a British mystery. Robert Benchley sat in front of Brian's place; the London Times had been passed along to John. Everything is ready except the food, Sophia realized.
She galloped down the kitchen stairs to the garage, flicking on the light before she looked inside. The garage was really a storage room. On the rare occasions when Beatrice could not feed her family from her resources upstairs, she replaced whatever she took out of the garage with ten of the same item. The result was, the room was monstrous. On three sides of the room, shelves displayed an obscene harvest of food, reaching from floor to ceiling, casting shadows on the roof. Cans like people were stacked on top of each other. There was no order; it was a fantasy of food. Soups, vegetables, grains, juices and dead animals teetered, one ready to shove the other over. The room bulged and drooled.
Sophia searched, shivering. The room was not heated, and the unshaded light overhead seemed to emit freezing rays. Finally, she found some corn hiding behind twenty cans of chick peas. The garage door opened and she gasped; tonight, she was afraid of ghosts.
"Hiyah, Squinch!" Her father swooped down on her in a brief, hard hug. "What are you doing in here? Waiting for me to come home? Where's your sweater?"
"Anya needed this." Sophia held out the corn. She was still breathing too fast.
"Oh. How was your day?" he asked, holding the door so she could precede him upstairs.
"I missed school. That was the best part."
"Go put on your sweater," he advised, his mind on his dinner. Beatrice took the corn from Sophia and lifted her face to be kissed. "I have to talk to you, John. Let's go upstairs right away."
"I'm hungry. It's been a long day," her husband called. He was already in the living room with Brian, scanning the new composition before he took his coat off. "I haven't seen this one before, have I? Anything else new?"
"I can't work without food," Brian protested. "We're all waiting on you, Dad."
Brian and Sophia were supposed to stay out of their parents' room, but John liked Beatrice to be in there with him. He liked to talk when he came home from work and changed his clothes. Sophia listened to her mother on the stairs, able to tell the exact second she sat down on the bed. She imagined the rows of ties and suits in her father's closet; the Chinese lamp illuminating his nakedness through the cracks in the door. Her mother picking cat hairs off the blankets. The paraphernalia of marriage laid out on the scarred dressers. Now, so low Sophia could barely hear, her parents discussed the bastards John overcame at work, Brian's compositions, the visit to Great-Aunt Sarah. Only tonight the order is wrong. Something is wrong. Why are they starting with Great-Aunt Sarah? Why is her mother crying, her father holding her? If they ever get divorced, Sophia realized, the closet would know before I do. "Brian. Can you hear what they're saying? Up there."
"No. And you're too old to be listening. If I ever catch you eavesdropping on me you little twerp--"
"Brian. Something's wrong."
"You always say that."
Sophia chewed the ends of her hair.
"There's nothing wrong," Brian shouted, but he came and stood next to her at the bottom of the stairs, listening with Sophia to the crystalline vibration of their parents weeping.
Chapter Three: Henry
When Henry was fourteen, the most important things in the world for him were his family (he had become aware that they were not normal, and hoped he was adopted) and his science books. Science seemed a way to make everything right in the world that was currently wrong—whether it was his parents fighting, or his younger brother crying, or even McCarthy not being elected president. Henry was a Young Democrat with modest political ambitions—he wouldn’t have minded working in Washington someday, imagining a townhouse where he would leave an as yet featureless wife and two children each morning while he went off to work to advise the President about how science would change the world. Meanwhile, he stuffed envelopes at the McCarthy center in his town, but despite all his saliva, and all the guitar playing at meetings, and all the hope and passion of the teenage population of the New York suburbs, there was no way to change an election that was lost from the get-go. Unless it was science. After the fact, Henry told himself that when he was older, he would be able to figure it out.
He felt like a mutant who had somehow landed in a strange house at home, but at The Museum of Natural History in New York City, Henry could be his true self. was He had read a children’s book called ‘The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” about two children who ran away from home and lived in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a few days. The Met was fine, Henry thought, but it was nothing compared to the Museum of Natural History. Just walking in and seeing the enormous dinosaur skeleton in the lobby made him happy. His idea of the perfect day was to be able to walk slowly from one room to the next, one floor at a time, without being interrupted by impatient teachers whose real agenda was to return to the school without leaving anyone behind. Henry dreamed of growing up, graduating from Yale or Harvard with a degree in paleontology, and being allowed to work at the museum constructing dioramas or piecing dinosaur bones together.
He was handsome, and did not know it, and would never know it. His younger brother called him “Nosey.” “Your nose is so big, I can’t see around it!” he jeered from the top bunk bed. Henry barely noticed how he looked. Tall, thin, with extremely thick wavy brown hair and purple-blue eyes obscured by unflattering glasses, he wore plaid shirts with pocket protectors for his pens and slide rules and jeans that he outgrew too quickly. He never spoke up in class, but invariably got the highest grade on every multiple-choice test and essay question. Teachers thought he was so quiet because he had a slight stammer. Henry knew it was because he was bored, so bored that he barely paid attention to schoolwork and got through the hours of the day by inventing wild stories about paleontologists and astronauts. He never wrote the stories down—they were an interior dialogue that insulated him from the classroom.