Paul Simon, I Had To Ask


Hey there dolly
Will you join this band?
Cause I’m eating well
And my hands swell up
From time to time
Though my face gets numb
And my legs keep twitching jerking

I could squeeze a little rock from the hours I’ve got left
Or I could write
So I ride my bike on every single street in this bruiser’s town
And when I’m done I’m done with it

Paul Simon, I had to ask
If I were you and you were me
Would you write a book about yourself?
Paul Simon, I had to ask
If you were me, imperfectly
Would you get yourself to church on Sunday?

Hey there, baby
Will you lie with me
Or call the paramedics cause I’m passing out
I spent eleven hours by the LCD
And my head spun wild so I drank a glass of water

I’m just getting through the moments these days
Can’t allow myself to think about what’s coming me
And it makes no sense when the muscles tense
Because you never will outrun yourself

C’mon, talk me through this
I had to ask


Thanks for Visiting

Newark, New Jersey


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    Vegetarian Option

    Okay, there are no vegetables in it. There’s barely anything but frost and fruit juice. Nevertheless, you can’t go to the Ironbound without picking up lemon or cherry ice from Nasto’s (236-40 Jefferson St.), an old-school ice cream parlor right by Independence Park. This is the real thing: Italian ice made by a champ who has been doing it from time immemorial. I’m biased, of course: when I was in single digits, all I really wanted was a pennant for the Baltimore Orioles and a quarter to spend at Nasto’s. It’s as good now as it was then.

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    House of Worship

    There are beautiful churches all over the country. But allow this Jersey partisan to say it: there’s no place like New Hope Baptist (106 Sussex St.) This house on the hill has been home to gospel royalty for decades – Cissy Houston was the Minister of Music here, and Whitney was raised in the aisles. Services remain an electrifying experience. If you ever need to remind yourself that pop performance – all of it – is deeply rooted in the African American church experience, come on down and get some religion.

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ELLIE


Bomb bomb bomb/bomb bomb Iran, sang Ellie. Time to turn Iran/into a parking lot. Oh bomb Iran, to the tune of Barbara Ann by the Beach Boys. But Ellie didn’t know Barbara Ann. The Beach Boys were not popular in his school.

Miss Ottawanda heard him. What are you singing about bombs child. Don’t you know that bombs kill innocents. What kind of a thing is that to come out your mouth.

“But everybody sings it,” said Ellie.

It was true. It had become a big refrain on the playground. Like most things that got popular it started with Levi. The song about Comet making your mouth turn green?, Levi taught that to everybody. Nobody knew where Levi got these songs from. Could he have been making them up?, they all wondered. Surely he was clever enough. He presented his verse with the authority of a composer.

“Ooh Ottawanda reamed you out,” Jace Face said to Ellie.

“Nah not really.”

“She shouldn’t even be a teacher,” said Levi. “She doesn’t have certification.”

“She’s strict,” added Jace Face.

Ellie didn’t want to talk about his music teacher. That was boring. Instead his attention was on the upcoming Field Day where he would once again demonstrate that he was the strongest boy in the grade. Jace Face would defend his title as the fastest boy in the grade. As for Levi, who was by general acceptance the smartest boy in the grade (if not the entire elementary school), his claim was best tested in the classroom.

But soon the talk of the Field Day turned to the Olympic boycott, the sheer unfairness of it, and the President, who had to have been the dumbest President ever to be born. So easy to manipulate. What a mistake people had made. Never again would the country have a President so bad. Levi had a song about that too, sung to the tune of the baloney commercial: Jimmy Carter has a way/of messing up the U.S.A. Everybody laughed because it was true.

Soon there would be war, Levi predicted. They would be coming for Israel. The three boys had learned many things in school, but they didn’t have to be taught about the Holocaust. It was like they had always known about the camps. If only they had been alive back then. Each boy was eager to put his superpower at the disposal of the military. I would have figured out how to get everybody out safe, said Levi. I would have come running and leapt over the walls and set everyone free, said Jace Face. Ellie went with a more direct approach. I would have battered down the walls with my bare hands. Rrr.

“No you wouldn’t,” said Levi. “Because you’d be on the other side.”

“In the concentration camp?”, said Ellie, horrified.

“No dummy you would have been fighting on the other side. The Italians fought for Hitler.”

“No way. I wouldn’t have.”

“You’d go against your own people?” asked an incredulous Levi.

Ellie was annoyed. He felt Levi was splitting hairs again, and he wished he’d quit it. They were all American and would be on the same side naturally. Besides, Ellie would never fight his friends. His thunderfists were reserved for the bad guys. Hitler qualified. Too much, he felt, was made of blood. What about Tony-O, he was a pizza bagel. Even Levi had a cousin who, he had said with a scientist’s pride at a successful splice, was half salami. All these weird and monstrous splits, resolved by the red white and blue.

There were the flags in the windows of the ranch houses on his walk home — paper flags printed on the front pages of local newspapers to suit the purpose, yellow ribbons wrapped loose around the great trees in the front yards, frayed ends flapping in the damp April wind. They’d been there awhile. If they were meant to be a solution, thought Ellie, they weren’t having the intended effect. At a busy intersection lousy with impatient riders at bus stops, Ellie pedaled past the synagogue where Levi’s dad served as the new rabbi. He’d never been inside. Occasionally Levi and Jace Face would walk their bicycles with him this far, and Levi would lock up and disappear behind the heavy doors of the temple. Usually, though, they headed home in the good direction. Ellie lived in the bad direction. Always ride your bicycle thataway, never thisaway. Head up to where your friends are. It’s nice up there isn’t it. Don’t go past the traffic light on the other side of the shop. Don’t go to the park after dark.

His pops wasn’t in the bakery. Instead his Uncle Rudy, disheveled and slick and wearing a pencil mustache, slouched behind the cash register. His momma swore he stole money out of the till, and that seemed more than plausible, but Ellie liked his uncle anyway. When he ran the shop, which wasn’t very often, Ellie was free to eat as many cookies as he could.

“Field Day coming soon,” said Uncle Rudy.

“How do you know?”

“I know things. You’re gonna mop the floor with those bums hah.”

Let me see you make a muscle. Ellie made a muscle. He gritted his teeth and growled. Rudy reached over the counter and felt his little arm. Wow you’re like a body builder now. Lou Ferrigno watch out. This pleased Ellie. The Incredible Hulk was the one show he never missed. He had great affinity for the Hulk. He had even tried to transform into the Hulk himself, in private, in his bedroom, the beast barely restrained by his flesh, activated by rage. Mad over the hostages. But to his great frustration he stayed the same. He must not be angry enough. Once he had let Jace Face watch him try. Get me mad get me really mad. Jace Face had called him names and thrown pebbles at him, but it wasn’t in earnest. Ooh I think I see you turning. Holy cow, he said, like Phil Rizzuto on the baseball games, I think you’re getting green.

Out came pops with trays of cookies. Sandy kisses with sprinkles and chocolate jimmies, or dotted with icing in pastel colors, chocolate biscuits and orange half moons dipped in caramel, sandwich cookies with the layer of red jelly and extra powdered sugar on top. Put them in a cardboard box under wax paper and tie the red and white twine into a bow. Bring a box home to your nana. Though most wouldn’t make it so far: the kids from the junior high would soon descend on the shop and eat them all. Then pops would make more.

How was your day in school, Ellie. What did you learn. Always with the impossible questions. Stuff, answered Ellie. Nothing. Well that’s not very good, said pops. You’ve got to learn something, right?, that’s what you’re doing there. My job is make the cookies, your job is to learn. Often pops asked about Miss Ottawanda. They had been classmates at West Side in Newark. Miss Ottawanda had been then a model student: a piano player, a singer, a track star. Pops had been a chubster who steered clear of the Blacks. Back then her name had been Peggy Hawkins and she had not worn kente cloth. She was sharp. It was such a shame that Miss Ottawanda still lived in the neighborhood after it had gone down.

“She made them put a moon up,” reported Ellie.

Each Easter week the school hauled the big cross up from the boiler room and stuck it in the entry hall by the trophy case. Nobody ever complained. It was a seasonal thing. Levi’s father and a couple of other parents felt that, given the instability in the Middle East and the existential threat to Israel, plus the Passover holidays, plus the composition of the community, it was reasonable to pair the symbol of Christianity with an equally inspiring symbol of Judaism. In the spirit of harmony a Star of David model joined the cross. So far so good. But then Miss Ottawanda spoke up. It was, she said, discriminatory to have a cross and a six-pointed star in the hall but no trace of Islam. The school had to remedy this. Miss Ottawanda had been so loud about it — and she could be very loud — that they had acquiesced. Now a crescent moon sat on a pedestal next to the cross and the propped-up star. A forest of empty signifiers, Mr. Vetters the social studies teacher had called it. A clear violation of the separation between church and state. But the holidays were over and nobody had taken any of it away.

Uncle Rudy had known Miss Ottawanda too. His reflections were not as positive as pops were.

“Everybody hates her,” Ellie confided in his uncle now that they were alone.

“Must be rough. Being the only black teacher in school.”

“It’s not because she’s black,” corrected Ellie, annoyed. “It’s because she’s too strict.”

Rudy had stayed for dinner as he sometimes did. Big plates of macaroni with chick peas and the red sauce and great cream mountains of ricotta. On top of old smoooookey, Rudy sang, as he piled up the cheese on bowl number three. You eat like this every night ha ha. No wonder why pops was so round. He did not even have to partake of the cookies downstairs to reach that girth. Shut up and eat, said pops.

After dinner Ellie followed Uncle Rudy into the basement where he smoked. Rudy had taped a Newsweek picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini on the dart board. In this he was not so unlike his nephew’s friends on the playground. I will kick this kickball like the Ayatollah’s face. C’mon Jace Face smash a homer like you are smashing the Ayatollah. It was good to have someone to smash.

“It’s dumb,” said Ellie. “There aren’t any Muslims in the school.”

“There’s bound to be a few. They’re probably just not loud about it, you know? I mean I wouldn’t be loud about it either.”

“Levi says they’re going to deport all the Iranians soon.”

“Oh Levi does, does Levi.” Rudy smiled and stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray. “Lemme ask you something, Ellie. As a person who has lived his short life in this Jersey village. How many Jews would you say there are in America?”

“How should I know?”

“Okay. How much of America would you say is Jewish?”

“I dunno? Half of it?”

Rudy scrunched up Ellie’s hair. He didn’t like it; it was too rough. For awhile they sat in silence, uncle flinging darts at the board and smoking, Ellie fiddling with the stops on an electric organ that hadn’t been turned on in years. It felt good to flip them up and flip them down and listen to the thwack of Rudy’s needles as they bit into the cork.

“Ellie I’ll tell you something else if you promise not to tell your momma. Okay? You swear?”

Ellie swore. I’m voting for Regan, said Rudy. Just relax and don’t worry because Regan will fix everything. But you can’t tell your momma because I don’t want to hear it. You don’t have to worry about nothing because Regan is coming to set it straight. The Middle East for sure. Just be a kid, okay? Relax and enjoy yourself. And you can’t tell your Uncle Orry whatever you do. Ellie nodded with wide eyes. Uncle Orry still lived far down in the bad direction. He worked for the Democrats. If a person was thinking about not voting for the Democrat, Uncle Orry would pay that person a visit. Then that person would vote for the Democrat.

“Momma said that Reagan wants to make sure I never go to college.”

“People say hysterical things. It’ll be good I promise.”

A dart went boom through the right eye of the Ayatollah.


The funny thing about Miss Ottawanda: she was very patriotic. Way more patriotic than the other teachers. In music class they had to do the flag salute, all over again, even though they’d done the flag salute already in homeroom. Once they had to sit there while she went through every line of the flag salute and made them think about what the words meant. One nation indivisible. Liberty and justice for all, for all, she emphasized. Levi raised his hand. Where is the music in this music class today. Miss Ottawanda became all angles, sharp elbows under her robe. The music, child, is in the words. The music is the promise of America. Listen with your heart — if you have one — and you will hear it.

Ellie knew there was something wrong before he’d even gotten to school, and he knew it was about Iran, but he didn’t know what. Had the war come? Teachers looked serious and talked to each other in lowered voices; homeroom felt solemn but he didn’t know why. It was on Miss Ottawanda to break the news. They had tried, she said, pausing, a little teary, to free the hostages. But there was a sandstorm. The helicopters couldn’t fly. They crashed into the desert. Eight brave Americans were dead, she told the class, the rescue attempt had ended in blood and flames. They’re gonna try again, right?, asked Jace Face, without raising his hand. Miss Ottawanda ignored him. Sing, she said, let us sing loud enough so the hostages can hear. Sing loud, like they’re right on the other side of the wall, bound and chained and afraid in our own embassy. And now she was banging on the spinet, clamming notes, exhorting the children to sing, my country tis of thee, this land is our land, all that.

“Well that was completely insane,” said Levi after class.

“You’re just mad that she reamed you out,” Jace Face retorted.

“You shut up.” But it was true. Levi had made an exasperated face in the middle of their third slog through America The Beautiful. Miss Ottawanda had stopped the song cold, right atop the purple mountains majesties, to call him an ingrate. A big ugly slam on the piano. Show respect, she hissed, for the fallen servicemen who gave their lives for your freedom. Like a bunch of dead soldiers really care what we do in music class. Levi was thoroughly disgusted. She was a tyrant like Hitler and somebody ought to do something about it. C’mon, said Ellie. No, a tyrant!, a tyrant like Hitler, do what I say or else.

Levi was still steamed up on the car ride; steamed in the front seat of his dad’s Corolla and fussing with his seatbelt as Ellie and Jace Face sat obediently in the back and listened in. They were headed to Jace Face’s place, which was as big as Levi’s house and the bakery put together. There they’d practice for the Field Day on calisthenics mats — or Jace Face and Ellie would, while Levi would stand on the side with his hands on his hips and make scathing comments. It would be such fun. Ellie could not wait to lift something the others couldn’t.

As he drove, Levi’s dad listened to his boy rant. So what I am hearing from you, son, is that your music teacher is a twisted amalgamation of Hitler and Khomeini. Sounds newsworthy and quite possibly catastrophic. He was smiling. Ellie could tell that he was teasing them. Levi’s dad seemed to be amused by everything the boys did and said. He was a gentle looking person with twinkly eyes behind circle frame glasses, fleshy earlobes and a big bald spot at the top of his head. The men in Ellie’s family were rigid as rocks, facing the advance of time with a shoulder thrown; Levi’s dad possessed the quality of a spring leaf, one that would bend and give in the wind and then return to position as springy as ever. It did not seem respectable. His wife — Levi’s mom — was so pretty that Ellie could only liken her to a cartoon. Ellie had already conflated the couple with various television stars, fairy tale characters, famous logos.

But Levi’s dad was not famous. He was just the cantor in the local Reform synagogue, a friendly face who made up songs about the Bible and played them for the kids at services. Abraham was the father of Isaac/Isaac was the father of Jacob. He loved to sing. Just then he did another thing that Ellie could never imagine his father doing: he sang along to the car radio and the latest song by the best group in the world. Are you ready/ready for the Eighties/I’m ready for the time of my life. Are you ready for the Eighties, they all sang, and it seemed to Ellie like a reasonable question to ask. The Village People were like that. Always looking out for you. So thoroughly did they enjoy the beat that they kept right on singing it, right up to Jace Face’s house, and even after they’d stopped the car and Jace Face and Levi had run out onto the lawn.

The song ended. Ellie felt emboldened and mischievous. From the backseat, still belt-buckled, he lobbed a question at his chauffeur. Are you ready for the Eighties, he asked.

“Ha! Absolutely not. How about you, Ellie?”

“I’m ready.”

“Good! That’s good.”

How is your father, he asked. Okay, said Ellie. Hungry. In the rear view mirror he could see Levi’s dad laugh. He’s a heckuva talent, you know. Best baker around. You should be proud of your dad. He’s an artist with that. All your uncles, very talented. We were in different schools, rival schools, but I remember them well. Miss Ottawanda, too, you know she was a fabulous singer. I never understood why she didn’t go to Arts High. She must not have had good guidance. Anyway, all jokes about the Ayatollah aside, I think you boys are pretty lucky to have her.

Finally Levi’s dad had reminded Ellie of his own dad — had become recognizable as a dad, a local dad. Because he was talking as his kin did about Newark, wistfully, his youth there, and he made it sound sweet as a slice of cake. It was impossible for Ellie to square this tone with Newark as it was otherwise discussed by his aunts and uncles, Newark as a must to avoid, Newark the dreadful and incomprehensible, a place so perilous that it required a radical rerouting of all trips from A to B, a place that had severed the easy connections with the slash of a knife. Newark, it seemed to Ellie, was something marvelous that the grownups had had but would not be extended to him. He wanted to know why.

Once he had walked in the bad direction as far as he would dare. He passed the university and the park, and the bus stops, and little shops on the sides of the road. He had felt nervous but aware, on top of himself, carried along by his curiosity. But what was he even afraid of? It was a bright and cold day. On he went until he noticed the street signs had gotten large and blocky. With a thrill of horror and a quick pivot for home he knew he’d crossed the barrier and touched Newark.

“If you liked it there,” Ellie, impertinent, asked Levi’s dad, “why did you leave?” Though he thought he had the answer already.

“Well, technically, Ellie, we didn’t go much of anywhere. If we turned this car around and drove, oh, ten twelve minutes, we’d be right there in the middle of Newark. But if I understand the spirit of your question, and it is a very good question, you want to know why I serve this village and not the neighborhood where I was raised. And I suppose the simple answer is that the congregation isn’t there anymore. But this is a nice place, isn’t it?”

It was. Jace Face’s house was far up the broad avenue in the good direction. Spring flowers bloomed everywhere. The lawns were greener, the houses were wider and broader and better built and the trees were thicker and healthier. Ellie noticed fewer yellow ribbons and newspaper flags in windows. He also noticed that it was nicer without them.

He tumbled out of the car and ran to join his friends in the rec room. Jace Face did a back handspring, or some general facsimile thereof, on the thick blue mats his dad had laid out for them. He picked a little ball up with his foot and screamed. Everything was pleasurable. A pile of great leather cubes had been left in the middle of the room, begging for a rough-and-tumble. Ellie tackled them with arms open. When they wouldn’t budge, he pushed and pushed. Then, just when he was about to admit defeat, the middle block wiggled out and the entire tower collapsed to the floor. Hooray, cheered Jace Face, hooray. You did it.

“I think it was stacked crooked,” said Levi. “To make it easier.”

“No way,” yelled Jace Face, who swung a pair of fists at Levi. He was protective of his father’s integrity. If his dad had set up an obstacle for them, then it had been a real challenge, one worthy of their superpowers. Jace Face’s dad had been a lawyer, a big lawyer, according to pops, but he had ditched it to set up a company that put phones in cars. Who on earth would want such a thing. People go in their car to get away from the damn phone, not to have more of it. Disbelief. They all shook their heads.

By the time Ellie got home that Friday night, his pops was already asleep on the kitchen table. Face down and arms baked red from the ovens. Ellie prodded his elbow but he wouldn’t budge. Could he be dead? Leave him be, said momma. He’s wiped out. Your favorite uncle didn’t show. Busy running with the dogs. Your father had to do everything again. By himself Ellie trundled into the television room. He turned it on but there was nothing interesting, not even a ballgame. Ellie scanned the den for something entertaining. There were the old West Side yearbooks, but those weren’t rewarding. He knew what he’d find inside: pictures of strangers, in strange clothing, beneath the names of his mom and pop.

The next morning Ellie woke with the bug to investigate. The weather was beautiful — way too beautiful for April. Pops would already be in the bakery. The bicycle was in the garage. Ellie grabbed it and kicked off in the bad direction.

There went the road: on down a hill fast. Ellie stood up on his pedals like a soldier, like Uncle Rudy taught him, and began to glide. Before he knew it he was well past the familiar blocks. He looked around as he sped by, noticing minor changes: graffiti on grates in the front of stores, more chain link fences, a gradual weakening of maintenance. This is not so bad, he thought. Just like home only not so well kept. Small changes in the architecture, nothing major. Houses were bunched closer, and pushed toward the curb. Their roofs were pointed sharper, like spear tips. A bit older, a bit dirtier, nothing to fear. After fifteen minutes on wheels Ellie looked up at the street sign on the corner and noticed its size and shape. He was in Newark now.

On his bike he was safe. He felt he could outrun whatever the day had to throw at him. Besides, it wasn’t all that different from his own neighborhood. More litter than he’d liked and the street not so neatly paved — now there were potholes he had to avoid — but familiar. Even the same kinds of stores he was accustomed to seeing: butchers and five and dimes, pharmacies with their medical poles, clothes shops with ratty garment hangers, a place with live chickens. Well that was new. Also more of the faces around him were black. Ellie was indeed unnerved by this and wondered if he was prejudiced. It was something his momma told him never to be. He fought off the feeling and continued.

Then the road took a turn and Ellie was stunned.

It was like he had dropped off the edge of the world. Before him stretched a long row of old storefronts, long abandoned, doors charred, hanging open. Husks of tall buildings with dark holes where windows used to be. Gates aimless and groaning on rusty hinges. Wide vacant lots of broken brick and sand, fields of weeds and glass and yellow poles. Junk and old sheets spilling out from the fronts of buildings, discarded tires, pulverized cement in cascades. Blocks and blocks and blocks. Ellie kept going. He heard that Newark had burned when pops had been in school, but that was long ago. How had no bandage been pressed to the open wound?

Ellie let his bike coast to an intersection with a traffic light hanging askew. Too amazed to be properly frightened, he stepped off and scanned the vicinity. This couldn’t be real. It didn’t seem possible that this vast crater in the streetscape could exist so close to the bakery, and the school, and the synagogue, and everything else he knew. Because here was devastation that no cartoon could approximate: a judgment rendered on these people in flame and chipped paint and torn signs and holes in the ground. Scrub the whole thing down, wipe it right out, he thought, make it so it was like it was never here.

Then fear slapped him like an old nun. There could be bad guys about. They could take his bike. They could take him.

But nobody took Ellie, or his bike. Nobody bothered with him at all. On the way back he had the experience in reverse: the sudden unexpected transition from the zone of desolation to square and orderly city blocks that had never heard the tick of the bomb. Just don’t turn around, the houses said. Don’t go in the bad direction. That’s just a sideshow over there, nothing you need to concern yourself with. By no means is that a mouth that will eat you up. That’s a margin; a place where the knitting had unraveled. But Ellie suspected that he had not visited the periphery. He felt he had learned something. He’d learned that they were all orbiting a dead sun.


He wanted to talk to Levi. Levi would get it; he’d have some light to shed on what he’d seen. But Levi wasn’t home that night. Sunday morning was church, and after that, long hours of momma on the phone with relatives. When a call finally came for Ellie, he leapt to get it. But it wasn’t Levi. It was Jace Face. And he had news.

“Get ready get set. Something big is gonna happen in music tomorrow.”

“What? What’s gonna happen.”

“Can’t say. Levi swore me to secrecy.”

“But you just told me. You just broke your oath.”

“Yeah but I didn’t tell you what.”

Now Ellie was really annoyed. Get ready for what? They were supposed to be all for one and one for all.

“We are, we are,” said Jace Face. “That’s why I told you.”

“But you didn’t tell me!”

“I swore!”

Nothing seemed odd in Miss Ottawanda’s class on Monday morning. The music teacher tolerated no guff and expected full attention during the flag salute and the patriotic songs. Hands on hearts everyone. On the piano she pounded them out and the children sang with as much lassitude as they could get away with. She’d lifted the lid to the eighty-eight and commenced the long drag up the steep hill; just like always, thought Ellie. He began to wonder if Jace Face had been pulling his leg. Then, mid-verse, Levi winked at him, and Ellie knew something was afoot.

It was God Bless America, that bitter old spit-it-out chestnut. Stand beside her and guide her, nobody thinking about what they were singing, Miss Ottawanda with her eyes on her hands at the piano, all the kids ploughing through, looking down at their music books. All the kids but Ellie. He was watching Levi. Who, as they approached the mountains and the prairies, extracted from his bag a puke green whoopee cushion. He slipped a hand on either side, belted louder on the oceans, and, just after the class had together scaled the ladder of notes to white with foam — that big, high, held foam — Levi let it rip.

Total mayhem. A breakdown in civil society, structures upended, laughter, disgust, a sour, struck piano chord, a howl of fifth-grade delight. The class was a seltzer bottle shaken in transport and Levi had lifted off the top. Kids at large in the aisles between desks, nobody blessing America now, and the swishing folds of cloth of Miss Ottawanda right in the middle of it, pawing at the air with her hands, shouting, attempting to restore order. To Ellie it was sixty seconds of pure blur, the exhilaration and panic of misbehavior, and it ended with a thump and a sick crack. Ellie looked down and gasped. Jace Face was on the ground, eyes scrunched and holding his mouth. He saw blood on his small fingers. She hit him she hit him did everybody see?, hollered Levi above the din. She hit him. Pink slip!

Much later, after school was all wrapped up for the day, Ellie sat at home in the den and replayed the disaster in his head. It was possible that he could have intervened. Between the mountains and the foam there had been time. He could have stepped in and stayed Levi’s hand. But the truth was — and he had to admit this to himself — he had wanted to hear the whoopee cushion go pppffft as badly as anybody. He had wanted to shatter the monotony of the music class too. Now Jace Face was hurt and he didn’t know how bad. He didn’t see him for the rest of the day. Someone said he had been sent to the nurse. Somebody else said he’d been sent home.

Uncle Rudy switched the channel to the news and crashed his butt down on the couch next to Ellie. On came the procession of images that Ellie now knew by heart: the bars of the embassy compound, the burning American flags held by men with fists raised aloft, banners in Arabic squiggle and hostages with scarves wrapped around their faces, Iranians with veils over their faces, the Ayatollah’s face, uncompromising under his turban and beneath his white beard. Bombs with their business end pointed at the cameras. Ellie didn’t want to see any of this again but he found himself watching anyway. Rudy watched too. For a long time the strip of images played in front of their eyes and neither said a word. Then it was Ellie, voice shaking, on the subject of the Iranians. They don’t care if they live or die. They don’t care. If they die in war they go to paradise. That’s their religion.

“Who told you that?,” asked Rudy. “Levi?”

“Yeah,” said Ellie, out of habit, although he didn’t think that was right. He had gotten the drill somewhere else.

“Well I think that’s a load of crap personally. There’s nobody who wants to die. Let alone a whole nationality. Hey. Hey! You’re not crying, are you?”

No. No he wasn’t. Well maybe a bit. Hey what did I tell you, said Rudy. Don’t get all troubled by this junk. Be a kid. God, I’m sorry I put it on. Stupid me. Look, Rudy told him, relax. Regan will get elected and everything will be okay. Rudy had another secret for him. You ready for this because this is a biggie. Listen Regan has a handshake deal under the table with Khomeini. Once he gets elected, boom, that’s when the hostages go free. You mark my words and remember what I say. Rudy slapped the back of one hand against the palm of another. Boom like that they come home.

This confused Ellie. It didn’t sit right. If Reagan has a handshake with the bad guys, wouldn’t that make Reagan one of the bad guys too?

“No, no, kiddo, think about it. As long as Iran holds the hostages Carter looks bad. What’s most important is to get rid of Carter. That’s most important of everything. You know that right?” Ellie believed he did, sort of. Jimmy Carter has a way of messing up the U.S.A. It certainly did seem messed up. President C, Rudy said with contempt. What a joke. Look in life sometimes you have to be prepared to work with people and they are not your friends necessarily. You make a compromise for the general good. Capeesh?

A shadow fell over the den. Ellie’s pops stood in the doorway. Wheat flour and powdered sugar coated his face and hands and his white workshirt. He looked like a snowman on Easter Sunday. I just want to make sure you get enough sleep, he told Ellie. I notice sometimes you don’t get proper sleep. You need to rest up for school. Don’t be watching that TV all night. It’ll give you dreams. Ellie promised his pops he would sleep. Good good. Then he shuffled away in his slippers. More cookies to make tomorrow.

Hey, said Uncle Rudy, once pops was gone. Hey. He promised Ellie a quarter if he told his momma that Rudy had brought in the flour bags today. Two quarters. Three. Enough for a few good packs of picture cards. Ellie exhaled hard. Aaaah I’m only kidding. Won’t make you lie for me. I know you’re an honest kid. But Ellie knew no such thing. In fact he had been weighing the offer. His pops never gave him quarters.

The next day dawned cold. April weather, always shifting. Ellie arrived at school early in the hope that he might catch Levi and Jace Face on the playground before the first bell, but he couldn’t find them. They weren’t at their lockers either. In homeroom the talk ran hot: there was an investigation going on, Field Day was either postponed or straight-up cancelled. Wasn’t that just like the grownups. They sure knew how to call stuff off. The Olympics weren’t going to happen either: the Russians wouldn’t back down. America would pull the athletes, and for what? Hadn’t everybody been overjoyed a few months ago when the Americans upset the Russians at Lake Placid? That was the Miracle on Ice, the game that the U.S.A. was not supposed to win, the Cold War extended to a cold sport, the puck in the back of the net for the fourth time that prompted a nationwide party. Grown men laying on their horns outside the bakery; one who stopped his car in the middle of the street, held up traffic, got out, thumped his chest, raised his arms, bellowed: We beat the Russians! Others, overjoyed, joining in. Yeah! Yeaaaaaaah.

Yet for Ellie, the hockey game was a site of secret but abiding shame. For reasons he didn’t quite understand, he hadn’t been entirely behind the Americans. This he shared with no one, of course, and even to remember his divided loyalties felt treasonous to him. He’d made sure to cheer as loud as everybody else did when the final buzzer rang. He nodded in approbation when Uncle Rudy, and then everybody else, told him with pride that the U.S. players were amateurs and the Russians were pros.

To Ellie that didn’t seem so great, though. Amateurs shouldn’t beat professionals. It was apparent to Ellie that hockey was more important to Russia than it was to America. Nobody on his block even followed hockey. It was rude, undiplomatic, impinging on their game like this, throwing those elbows and shoulder pads around. Beyond that, the players weren’t the bad guys, or enemy soldiers. They were athletes, just like Ellie was, and he recognized on their faces the pressure of expectations. They had more to lose. And it was this great and private betrayal that hung on Ellie’s mind again, as he strained to justify it to himself, when Mr. Vetters tapped his wrist and told him he was wanted in the principal’s office.

So he took the long walk: past the kindergarden with the fingerpainted pictures on the door, past the trophy case and the cross, star, and crescent moon, past the bathrooms and the gymnasium and the cut-out alphabets by the big cork board. Somebody had won the math award. There would be an assembly next week; Detective Kohl was coming to talk about bicycle safety. Wear your helmet and look both ways. In the waiting room of the principal’s office, Ellie was surprised to find Miss Ottawanda, sitting upright with her shoulders back in a chair that was too small for her — for she was very tall — green headdress on and fingers clasped in her lap. She did not greet him. He took a seat on the same side so he wouldn’t have to see her face if he didn’t want to.

When Ellie looks back on that day — as he often does — he always wonders how much of the puzzle he’d put together. A few pieces of similar color, perhaps, but certainly not the frame and nothing big in the middle. He finds his emotional state hard to recall. He must have been worried, then, for no child sits in the principal’s office and waits to be called without terrible visions of punishment in his head. But did he have concern for Jace Face, whose whereabouts he still couldn’t pinpoint, or Miss Ottawanda, untenured, with her lips pulled together and her veins in her hands protruding under her skin? Or had he already forgotten what he’d learned about school, about power, about where in the world he lived, and instead basked in that cold satisfaction that students do when they understand for the first time that teachers, too, could get in trouble. An oppressive authority felled, reduced to the status of a penitent. He has talked about it with Jace Face, who is now a lawyer in the same firm where his father works (the car phone venture proven sadly premature), and Levi, with whom he is still quite close, and who has mellowed into the same kind of gentle and jocular man that his dad once was. But neither of them remembers the day at all. Fancy Ellie, still hung up on fifth grade. We sure had some good times then.

“Ellie? Please come in.”

He left Miss Ottawanda behind then. The heavy door closed behind him. Here was the principal, who drummed on the desk with the metal end of his pen, and Levi, and also Levi’s dad, and Mr. Scaruffi the gym teacher, who was always everywhere. Ellie was a big fan of Mr. Scaruffi: he’d let him lift weights and cheered when he’d gone up the pegboard. Look at Ellie go. Look at him go. He’s nobody’s lunchmeat.

“Jason lost a tooth,” said Levi’s dad. “He’ll be fine. They’re fixing him up now. I know you’re worried about Jason.”

“Jace Face,” Levi translated.

They asked him to talk. Will Ellie’s story corroborate the one they had gotten from Levi. This was a serious matter, Ellie. Striking a student was very serious. Ellie looked over at Levi. To his surprise his buddy was totally composed. Levi had had a better view of it, said Ellie, whatever Levi said, that’s what happened.

“We think you had a good view of it too,” said the principal. “You’re the biggest boy in class. Everyone looks up to you. What started it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ellie, did you push or shove anyone?”

Levi’s dad cut in. I know Ellie very well, he said, and he is not the sort of boy who exploits his advantages over others. Or who makes a mess worse. He knew Peggy as well. Miss Ottawanda. Sounds like there was a melee, some tumult, just one of those things. Kids, they roll around and fall right over. It would be for the best if everyone took a breath, settled down, stopped pointing fingers.

“Did you see Miss Ottawanda hit Jason?”

“Why don’t you ask her,” said Ellie. “She’s right outside.”

“Because I am asking you.”

“She’s right outside!” Now Ellie was getting angry and he wasn’t even sure why. Calm down Ellie, said Mr. Scaruffi, we’re just trying to figure out what happened. But it’s stupid, it’s stupid to ask me when she’s right over there. She knows better than me. She’s the teacher.

Levi’s dad gestured to the door. The principal shook his head. Miss Ottawanda would have her opportunity to tell her story. But if a teacher could not control the class, all other matters were secondary. It was not merely a legal matter. With this particular teacher there has been, to be frank, a pattern of erratic behavior. Here was a further instantiation of that pattern. Miss Ottawanda was not bigger than the class or the school. Disciplinary action will follow. The district will resolve this to the satisfaction of Jason’s family.

Afterward Mr. Scaruffi pulled Ellie aside and led him into his industrial blue-green office with the racks of soccer balls. You want to sit down, Ellie. So he did. Mr. Scaruffi waited awhile before he spoke.

“Miss Ottawanda likes you a lot, you know that Ellie?”

“She does?”

“Yes she does. You and your pal Jason both. She says you have good hearts.”

Ellie said nothing, but found himself getting furious all over again. What was it with these report cards. these snap assessments, aired strategically, suspicious praise given out like Halloween treats. Miss Ottawanda appreciated his heart. Levi’s father liked the sort of boy he was. They all felt authorized to scope him. They were peering into him, invading him, making sure he stood up straight and that he was made of the right stuff. As if the world they’d made was so grand. It wasn’t so grand. Mr. Scaruffi spoke again.

“I think you know more about what happened than you’re letting on. I think you should tell me.”

“I said what I know.”

“Everything Levi is saying is true.”

Ellie paused, blinked, nodded once. Can I go. Well. I like how you boys stick together, said Mr. Scaruffi. I really do. I appreciate a tribe. Like a bunch of gorillas. Oo oo oo. He punched the air downward with his fists. Okay get out of here. Tell your pops to save a cookie for me.

Alone in the hall Ellie felt hounded, cornered, thoroughly coerced. Filthy. He had been lifted up by the seat of his pants by the day, shaken around and turned upside down. He’d been pushed, and he’d push back, but he didn’t have a direction to flail himself in. If he’d been the Hulk, he’d be green by now; his eyes would have yellowed and narrowed and become animalistic, his little pants would have torn at the knees and his top would be in tatters on his back. But he was not the Hulk. He was a kid in a blue t-shirt with white striped sleeves and the number of a faded hitting star on the back.

Two paces back toward homeroom, and then two more, and then he was stomping down the hall. Not stopping for nobody. His friends would be pasting paper on to paper, or handing in homework, or practicing cursive — all but Jace Face, who was recovering somewhere under the protection of his family, and Levi, who had taken a strange sidestep into a status unknown to Ellie. He’d never cut before, but he felt that returning to class was not among the available options that afternoon. Field Day was off. Ellie stopped in front of the trophy case. There was his name, on last year’s Strongman competition, which he’d won handily, engraved on a brass sheet on a wooden plaque, locked inside a glass cabinet. Suddenly he was pulverized by embarrassment. In that moment he knew that if he tried hard — really hard — he could pin that shame to the wall, scrutinize it, inspect it like a lab specimen and understand its corrosive properties. Instead he kicked the wooden Easter cross into the Star of David and watched both fall and break into ugly pieces on the linoleum floor. Then, to be fair, he threw an elbow at the crescent moon. With one blow he knocked it clean off the pedestal. On the ground it shattered.

For a second Ellie was frozen in shock, stupefied by what he had just done. He took two deep breaths and swallowed the shock. Then he ran like hell.

– Tris McCall

Pick our next destination:

 

Pick our next destination:


Ann Arbor, Michigan: “Hopscotch Otters Collegetown Blues”
Atlanta, Georgia: “King of Pops”
Austin, Texas: “Chelsea”
Baltimore, Maryland: “(That’s What I Like About) Baltimore
Billings, Montana: “Tight Times (In the Land of Silence)”
Cambridge, Massachusetts: “You Could Meet Me There”
Camden, Maine: “I Dream Dead Ends”
Charlestown, South Carolina: “He Eats Well”
Chicago, Illinois: “Gurleez”
Columbus, Ohio: “O Columbus”
Dearborn, Michigan: “Unbeliever, Respect the Veil”
Denver, Colorado: “Conspiracy Theory
Houston, Texas: “Houston Calls the Space Cadet
Indianapolis, Indiana: “A Girl With a Bicycle”
Jersey City, New Jersey: “Paul Simon, I Had to Ask”
Las Vegas, Nevada: “All the Money in the World”
Los Angeles, California: “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby”
Miami Beach, Florida: “Every Day is Children’s Day”
Monticello, New York: “Sector B”
Nashville, Tennessee: “You’re No Good to Anyone”
New Orleans, Louisiana: “The Unmapped Man”
New York, New York: “The Prince of Daylight
Northampton, Massachusetts: “The Blue Door”
Orlando, Florida: “Nowhere to Go But Down”
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: “Backstage @ The Hungry Bum”
Phoenix, Arizona: “On Indian School”
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “Kate Beaton
Portland, Oregon: “Turbulence at Night”
Raleigh, North Carolina: “I Like America”
Richmond, Virginia: “American Flag”
San Diego, California: “Route 52
San Francisco, California: “Joe Panik”
San Juan, Puerto Rico: “The Tantrum”
Seattle, Washington: “Take Me to the Waterfall
Washington, D.C.: “You Used to Sing About Manhattan”
Wilmington, North Carolina: “Somewhere Down the Line”
Yountville, California: “The Sybarite”