Herman stood on the summer-scorched lawn and stared at the picket fence, knowing he could clear it in one leap. He had wings on his feet; he was as light as the sprinkler-scattered air. He flew over the white spiked planks, and the sun and the wind caught his shirt and held him aloft—joyous and glowing. He lightly landed in the softly prickling grass and took off, running. He crossed yards and sidewalks and hot streets. He ran over a world he’d known forever, a world that he held, charted, in his head. He’d been racing through these backyards and alleys for as long as he could remember, crouching in hedges in the hushed dusk, watching through windows, before his mother called him home for dinner.
He stopped at a small pile of stones, which had been placed one on top of another in a neat tower. He kicked them over with a clattering and circled to the back of the house, where he let himself in at the screen door. After the noisy mid-afternoon, mid-summer sunlight, the quiet darkness of the house felt nearly blinding. The rooms smelled of cigarettes and cinnamon and lime, and were brown and grey and cluttered with the oddest collection of objects Herman had ever seen. Silently weaving through piles of curiosities, he paused to touch a pearly yellowed accordion, a carved curved sword, a tattered playing card of The Drowned Man, a bright still bird under glass, a small strange skeleton floating in grey water in a jar.
He found Jack smoking and drinking whisky from a sweating glass and painting waves on small pieces of wood. The paint soaked into the wood and nearly disappeared to nothing, to just a pale smudge of green or blue or grey. Jack looked up at the sound of Herman’s light step, he didn’t smile but he nodded. His face was creased and tan, his hair was black but flecked with white, and tipped with white at his temples. Like waves, thought Herman, waves in a dark sea washing onto his face. Jack wore a t-shirt and jeans. He was the only man Herman knew that dressed this way, that didn’t wear a suit, or at least shirtsleeves, in every weather. Jack wordlessly stood and poured Herman ginger beer in a rocks glass. They sat for a while, in silence, clinking their ice and sipping their drinks. Finally Jack said, “Well I could use your services tonight.”
“Of course, of course,” replied Herman, trying not to sound too eager or interested. He cleared his throat. “I mean, sure, why not.”
They sat in silence again, listening to the clear hot summer sounds of the neighborhood filter through the dust. Herman was hoping for a story of Jack’s naval days. A story about his travels as far as a person could go in the world and beyond. A tale of a shore-leave visit to a brothel, almost more frightening than a tale of a storm at sea. But Jack didn’t seem in a mood for storytelling. He seemed distracted and sad, he sighed and swore quietly under his breath.
“I’m sorry to ask it of you.” He said. “I’m sorry about the whole situation.”
“Naw, I don’t mind.”
Jack looked up at Herman and laughed a soft short laugh. “My god, boy, look at your face! Of course you’re right. What a goddamned mess!” Jack had a tattoo on his arm: a ship, strangled by grape vines rising out of the ocean, and all the sailors turning to dolphins in the waves. Jack rubbed it absently. “I’d put her name here, if I could. I’d put her name here on my arm.”
Outside the window a leaf hung in mid-air as if suspended from nothing. It turned in lazy circles, first one way and then another. Herman waited, wishing for a strong breeze to spin it in a tizzy. Probably a spider web holding it up, he thought.
“Well,” sighed Jack. “And how will I be paying you this time?”
Herman was ready with his response. “A coin!”
“My little mercenary friend.” Jack pushed a wooden box towards Herman. Coins from all over the world: coins with holes in the center, coins with strange letters that Herman would never understand, coins with birds and animals Herman would never see, coins that had passed through the hands of people Herman would never meet. He picked one with a rooster on one side and a harp on the other, it was heavy and dark and felt good in his hand.
He let himself out the back door, feeling the weight of a coin from beyond the farthest place in the world. He raced through yards criss-crossed with a rigging of laundry-lines and sails of billowing sheets and underwear.
“Cooooeee, Herman, coooeee.” Mrs. Graham. Kind confused Mrs. Graham. She beckoned with a long gnarled finger, and Herman followed her into the house.
“My dear,” she said, in her emphatic quavering voice. “Have a cookie.” The cookie crumbled to sand in his mouth, salty and dry. When she turned away he dropped it in the trashcan. She had a rolling gait, and she walked with her arms straight and her hands balled into fists at her side, and Herman wondered if she was in pain with every step. Her house smelled like sweet decaying fruit and tuna fish, it buzzed with fruit flies, and it was cluttered with notes she’d written to herself to help her remember. She’d set them everywhere throughout the house, and they fluttered like moths when she moved past.
“I’m packing up some cookies for my friend, Wilbur. And I know you’ll take them to him, won’t you, you good boy?”
“Sure, Mrs. Graham.” She held the string on top of the box, and he helped her to tie it, careful not to catch her raw red finger in the loop.
“Should I put money in, too, do you think? I have some money here, some twenty-four dollars and sixty-two cents. Could he use that, do you think?”
“Naw, Mrs. Graham, you keep it. He can’t use money where he is.”
“No?” She looked up at him with bright worried eyes. “No need for money?”
“No need for anything, Mrs. Graham. He’s all taken care of. He’s all settled.”
“You good boy.” She placed the box in his hands, and squeezed his arm, pressing her fingers into his muscles, lost in thought.
Herman waited until he was a few blocks away to ditch the box. Mrs. Graham rarely left her house, but you couldn’t be sure, and he’d hate for her to find it. He dropped it in a trashcan behind somebody’s garage and carried on down the alley.
After dark, Herman climbed Henry and Alice’s porch steps as if drawn to the light like any of the buzzing summer insects. The bugs threw themselves desperately at the cracked glass globe over the light bulb, and then spun away in a daze to try it again seconds later. They cast monstrously large shadows over Herman’s face. The yard hummed and chattered with the busy quiet of a late summer evening; a few yards away a dog barked, urgent and unheeded.
Alice opened the door to Herman, and she gave him a kiss on his cheek. Her skin was soft and her hair was soft and her voice was soft when she whispered “Thank you so much for this, Herman. You have no idea!”
She walked him back to Henry, who sat in a big leather chair with a glass of something and a pipe. Henry, large and handsome, had thick silvery hair, thick gleaming glasses, and a red face, which lit up when he saw Herman. Herman sat next to him, as he always did, and they started talking; slowly at first but it always picked up. The whole house was dark and shiny. This was, by far, the cleanest house that Herman had been in all day, but it reeked of fried onions. A thick fug of onions hung in the air, and Herman thought that it was strange that Alice would cook onions on the night of an assignation. He imagined the smell would linger all about her, would linger in her clothes and hair. He imagined her walking through the shadowy night to Jack’s house, with the poignant smell of onions clinging to her like guilt.
When Alice bent to lift the heavy chess set, Herman could see her ribs and shoulder blades stretch against her yellow dress. She was strong and thin, and, Herman suspected, a little crazy, but not in a bad way. While they played, Herman watched Alice. She moved quietly from room to room, trying not to disturb them, getting herself ready. Herman wondered where she went, when she disappeared from view, and he wondered what she did there. He thought about her alone, in rooms, out of his sight, doing what she liked, and the thought maddened him. She wasn’t pretty in any expected sense. She didn’t look perfect like the girls in magazines, but Herman was old enough to understand why Jack liked her. She had a spark, a gleam in her eye. Whatever it was that made her imperfect and alive, whatever that was, it made her fascinating, and Herman saw that.
Finally she left. She put one pale hand on each side of her husband’s ruddy face and kissed the top of his head. From the porch she turned a glowing, conspiratorial face to Herman, and then she moved down the path, her bright dress fading into shadows.
Henry liked to talk about money. He was good at making money, he was a rich man. Herman was a bright boy and Henry wanted him to be good at making money, too. A rich life was a good life, a full life. He liked everything in his life to be rich—rich food, rich leather, richly furnished rooms. He said the word, rich, so many times that it began to lose all meaning in Herman’s ears. The light glanced in his glasses and through them his eyes looked huge and watering. Henry took a mouthful of ice from his glass, and put a thick hand up to his face. It obviously hurt his teeth, and he sputtered and spit the ice back into his glass, and in that moment Herman saw him not as a rich old man, but as a child, and he felt sorry. But he also thought about getting Henry to sleep, as one would get a child to nap. This was all he could think about. It was more stressful to lose chess games on purpose than you might think, and if Henry fell asleep, Herman could go and watch Jack and Alice through Jack’s windows.
So he thought of dull things to talk about. He thought of his mother’s life. Of the sameness of it from day-to-day. How trivial it seemed to him. He thought of her washing dishes, up to her elbows in soapy water, but perfectly still, lost in thought. He thought of her hanging out the laundry, and the far away look she got when the clothes got caught in a gust of wind. He talked to Henry of washing dishes and folding laundry. He talked of the price of peas, and how it varied from small store to small store all over town. He talked of sweeping, and of how no matter how often you sweep, there’s always more dust, no matter how often you wash, there’s always more dirt.
When he looked up, Henry’s eyes had closed. First one, and then another, swimming through the thick lenses. He grunted, and tried to hold them open, but instead he rolled his great head around on his neck, and let it rest on his chest. He breathed fitfully for a while, and startled like a baby, and then he was quiet. Herman watched him, scared to make a noise and break the spell, waiting for the exact moment that he could fly out the back door. But then he saw that Henry wasn’t breathing at all. Herman didn’t move for long slow minutes in the impossible rich silence, and then he went and felt Henry’s wrist, as he had seen people do. His arm felt hard and strange and cold, and Herman felt a sickening pressure behind his eyes. He kissed the old man, foolishly, on the top of his head. He put his new dark heavy coin in the old man’s cold hand, and the fingers curled around it.
Herman moved quietly through the house, as if fearful of waking the old man. When he got to the back door he cleared the steps in one leap, he raced through yards and over fences, he barely touched the ground. For the first time he felt afraid of every noise, of the hushed teeming dark grass, which felt like wild nighttime waves to a drowning man. He got to his house and spoke to nobody, but climbed into his bed, where he lay all night, thinking, and watching the breeze stir slowly in his thin pale curtains.