Matthew was a grave little boy. When I say that he was grave, what I mean is that he was not the type of little boy who would run around yelling all the time. He didn’t spend much time playing with other boys his own age, since such play, and you will understand this if you have had any personal dealings with little boys, invariably turns into running around yelling. Matthew did not like playing baseball or soccer, either. However, he did like to look at books. The ones he preferred had pictures of cartoon mice and rabbits and dogs who were colorful and friendly. He didn’t concern himself with exactly what the cartoon mice and rabbits and dogs were doing, although he was big enough to read the words and find out. He mostly liked to sit flipping through the pages, looking at them one after the other. He did this gravely.
In his day-to-day life, Matthew made a sincere effort to please his parents, but, as is so often the case with little boys, he did not seem quite able to do so. At any given dinner, it was probable that Matthew’s father would draw attention to the fact that, in his opinion, Matthew was not cutting his meat properly, or Matthew was not sitting in his chair correctly, or Matthew was putting pieces of food into his mouth that were inappropriately large. Matthew would try to sit straighter or cut his food into smaller pieces, but these things never made much sense to him.
Matthew’s mother had a very dependable habit. Every afternoon, she watched a television program which ran from 2:00 p.m. until 3:00 p.m. It was about some doctors and some other people, and they were always getting involved in complicated and dramatic situations having to do with love, and finances, and betrayal. Because something particularly dramatic might occur on the program at any time, Matthew’s mother did not dare to miss a single afternoon. This period of the day was a good time for Matthew. He could be alone in his room, or he could play in the yard. His way of playing in the yard was to walk all the way around it, turning very carefully when he came to a corner to be sure that he did not accidentally take a step off the grass. He was not allowed to leave the yard. Things in the yard would attract his attention—an unfamiliar clump of grass jutting out, a square of clear plastic that had lain there, who knew how long, avoiding the mower’s blades, surprising shadows from the catalpa tree—and then he would sit down on the grass and examine the things. He would do so gravely. The insects in the yard confused and dismayed him—they were not friendly, and usually they were not very colorful.
One day it so happened that while he was playing in the yard he had a surprising and exciting thought. He thought he would leave the yard. Once the thought occurred to him, he could not rid himself of it, but continued to mull it over as he played. In a very few minutes it had become a certainty in his mind that he would leave the yard. He stood poised at the edge of the grass for a moment, and when he took that first step onto the sidewalk, it was like stepping over a chasm. It was dangerous and thrilling, yet, once he was across, he felt surprisingly safe and sure of himself. He started off down the sidewalk.
The houses were rather far apart, and he did not know who lived in them. He had ridden past them numerous times in the family car, of course, but he could not recall ever having seen the people who resided there. Maybe they never came out. He looked at the houses with interest. They were of all different shapes and colors. Particularly, the garage doors were a variety of different textures. It was all very odd and wonderful. There were no people about.
The first person that Matthew met was a man. He saw the man coming along the sidewalk from some distance away, and as they approached each other, Mathew felt embarrassed because he didn’t know how to greet the man or whether he should, but averted his eyes and almost turned around to start walking the other way. Instead, he stopped.
Matthew might have encountered any number of people on his sojourn. He could have run into the man who checked the power meters, uniformed, belted, wary for dogs. He might have met Mrs. Gleason, the girls’ troop leader, jogging, or the newspaper delivery man, except that he only came around in the morning and hardly ever got out of his car, or the mail carrier, who was a nice old fellow named Fred, who wheeled his big bag of mail on a three-wheeled cart. Yes, Matthew might have met any of these people or a dozen more, and anyone of them would have stopped and asked him where he was going and why, because he was just a little bit too small to be wandering around the neighborhood by himself. But he ran into this man.
“Hey, there,” the man said. “Would you like to come over to my house and help me with some chores I’ve got? I’ll pay you …”
Matthew knew that he was not supposed to do anything like that, but suddenly the concept of getting paid for doing chores seemed extremely reasonable and logical to him. At home he was not paid for doing his chores. Matthew accepted the man’s offer. It seemed in keeping with the spirit of the day.
Presumably, the man had had some errand in mind when he ventured out onto the sidewalk, but whatever it was, he turned away from it now to lead Matthew. The man’s house was not distant.
Once they were inside, the man asked Matthew if he wanted something to drink. Matthew was glad to get a drink. He felt hot from playing and walking out in the sunshine, and the drink the man brought him was very sweet and cold and tasted like cherries.
The house smelled funny, not like Matthew’s. He didn’t know what the funny smell was, but he didn’t like it. It was strong and seemed to come from everywhere.
The man said that it wasn’t time to start doing the chores yet, but that Matthew could watch TV in the meantime if he wanted to. Then the man left and went into the other room. Matthew went to the TV set, which was a big old-fashioned one resting on a low stand, and figured out how to turn it on and change the channels. It was different from the one at his house. He found a show that he liked—it had cartoon rabbits in it—and he lay down on the floor to watch. He lay on his stomach with his elbows on the floor and his chin held in his hands.
A few minutes later the man came back in and sat on the floor next to Matthew. He put his hand on Matthew’s back. Matthew had never felt a hand that was so heavy, almost as if its weight was pushing him down into the floor. The hand did not move. It rested on Matthew’s back, high up on his back so that the thumb and index finger, separated, were curving slightly around the beginning of Matthew’s neck. There seemed to be a lot of heat coming from the hand, more than there should have been. Matthew lay there puzzled at the hand that was somehow not a hand, different from a hand. It made it hard for him to notice what was happening in the cartoon, but he continued to stare at the TV anyway. The hand counteracted the cartoon, as if somehow it was the cartoon’s opposite.
It might have been as long as 20 minutes—the TV program was not yet over—that the man lifted his hand from Matthew’s back and said in a soft voice that he supposed it was getting late and Matthew should probably go home. He said it was too late to do the chores he had wanted Matthew’s help with, but he would pay anyway. They stood up, the man seeming even taller than before, and the man handed Matthew a $10 bill, which Matthew gravely stuffed into his pocket.
As Matthew went to the door, the man invited him to come back the next day, or whenever he wanted to. He needed help fixing his car, he said, and also could use some help sorting his comic books. Matthew did not delude himself that he knew anything about how to fix a car, but it seemed reasonable to suppose that he would be able to help in some way. And the thought that the man possessed a collection of comic books was interesting. Nonetheless, he didn’t answer, but exited the house and began to walk back down the street to his own house. There was a moment of fear when he came to the sidewalk and wasn’t sure which way to go. His heart beat fast. But it only took him a moment to remember the way.
He got home before his mother’s television program ended. She did not know he had been gone.
Matthew went through that day and part of the next with an amazed sense of confidence and wonder. What else might he do in secret, in violation of expectations? The possibilities seemed limitless. At dinner he cut his food into very small pieces, but smiling to himself as he did so. His father frowned. At bedtime, he went straight to bed and turned his light off. He knew it was what his mother liked him to do at bedtime.
His odd new confidence was not connected with the sidewalk, the bad-smelling house, or the man who gave him money and clearly was not his friend. He did not give any of these things a moment’s thought. His mind was filled with imagining the whole world, as big as he could think of, with bright colors, a million places to go to, the feeling of movement, wandering, exploring, reaching.
The next day at 2:00, when Matthew’s mother turned on the television, he went out to the yard. He went straight to the far comer of the grass, leapt onto the sidewalk with both feet, and ran down the block to the not-too-far-away house where the man he had met yesterday lived. He raced up to the door and rang the bell. It didn’t take very long at all for the man to come to the door and open it for Matthew.
“I came back,” Matthew said.
* * *
Oh, my god! Get the hell out of there, Matthew! Run away. Oh, what did I do? What the hell’s wrong with me.… Oh, sorry. It’s me, I’m the narrator guy, you know, the author, whatever. Matthew’s in big trouble, and it’s my fault. Honest, I didn’t know he was going to run back to that house. I thought he might go, but I didn’t know he was going to run. I could have stopped him, but I didn’t think in time. And what am I supposed to do now? I don’t wan’t to hurt him. I don’t want to hurt him.
Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, I got it. The guy has a gun, like, in a cabinet, and the little dude finds it, and … yeah, blows the bad guy’s head off. Crowd-pleaser.
Or, no, wait, he would just have to call the cops. Little dude dials 911. No problem; justice, retribution, rescue, all that.
Why don’t I just have the kid turn around and go home? I could do that. I can make him. I can make him do anything. But, but then it’s not real …
I’m going to let the people in the story decide. Not Matthew, he wouldn’t even know how he wants the story to end. Not Matthew’s parents—they’re boring, and who cares what they want. I’m letting the bad man pick, that man in the house down the street. It’s him. It’ll be all on him. His fault. Not my fault.
* * *
There Matthew stood at the door, his mouth still open from announcing his return. The man ushered him in. Once inside, they replayed the scene with the cherry drink, the television, lying on the floor, the heavy hand. The topic of car-fixing or book-sorting did not come up. This day the hand rested lower on Matthew’s back, near his waist, and furthermore it was up under his shirt, its heat impinging directly on Matthew’s skin. Matthew paid minute attention to it, and he thought he noticed it trembling.
And then the man stood up suddenly and left and went up the stairs. Matthew didn’t take his eyes off the television screen, but in his peripheral vision and in his hearing he noticed that the man’s steps on the stairs were slow and indecisive, perhaps sad. Matthew often walked that way on stairs himself, or on sidewalks or in grade school hallways, and it was familiar to him. He remained on the floor watching the television.
The program he was watching ended. It wasn’t time for him to go home yet. He found that he was wondering about this bad-smelling house and the man who paid him to do work he never did. Feeling certain that he was not violating any boundaries, he got up and began walking through the house, investigating. He went to the kitchen. The kitchen table was clean, but there was a plate in the sink. Matthew opened the refrigerator. He wouldn’t have minded a snack, but there was nothing in the refrigerator—a bottle of mustard, two cans of beer still attached to their plastic six-pack ring, and a plastic pitcher with three fingers of cherry drink left in it. No snacks.
Suddenly Matthew wanted to see the man again, to talk to him. He headed toward the stairs.
On the wall next to the stairs were framed photographs. One was a photograph of a woman. There were also photographs of a little boy. It was evident that the little boy belonged to the woman, but somehow it was apparent also that neither the woman nor the boy belonged to this house, this wall, the staircase. The little boy was just Matthew’s age and looked somewhat like Matthew, but, of course, Matthew didn’t know who he was. Matthew looked for a long time at the pictures of the boy.
The upstairs was small, a corridor with doors opening off it. All the doors were closed. Matthew assumed it was OK for him to open the doors and see what was behind them. One room was a bathroom. It was dark and smelled different from the bathroom in Matthew’s house. He felt drawn into it to see the bathtub, the showerhead, the sink, the toilet. They looked gray and spooky in the dimness. Matthew didn’t turn the light on.
The second room Matthew tried was empty. It had no furniture, no rug, no pictures on the wall, no curtains, no light.
Matthew did not go in. When Matthew opened the door to the third room, he saw that it was the man’s bedroom. Although the light was off in this room too, Matthew could see that the man was on the bed lying very still. Matthew went right up to him. He knew the man wouldn’t mind. Somehow it seemed natural and right that the man was so still. On the table next to the bed was a glass of water half-full.
Matthew went and stood next to the bed and looked at the man’s face. It had no expression, and the eyes were closed. Only for a fleeting instant did Matthew want to rouse the man to get him to say something. If he was the kind of boy who liked yelling, he might have yelled, “Wake up!” and he might have touched or pushed the man’s shoulder, but somehow it seemed that the man’s hand had already done the full amount of touching that was going to take place between them. And in Matthew’s mind was the question, “Who is that little boy on the wall by the stairs?” and “Why is he just like me?” But he didn’t say anything.
He turned around and left the room. He went down the stairs with his face turned away from the photographs. When he went out through the front door he didn’t shut it. Coming to the sidewalk, he felt lost again, as though someone had taken the sidewalk and spun it around. He shook his head and quickly remembered which way to go, and he got home before his mother’s television program was over.
The next day he played on the lawn without stepping off the grass. Step, step, step; careful right-angle turn, step. Is that a grasshopper? He saw an ambulance go by without its lights or siren on, but he didn’t watch to see where it was headed. He was looking at the grasshopper.
* * *
There, that works. That’s better. OK.