As he played, the boy stared into the album propped open against the bookcase. A Negro man in a white shirt stood in the ruins of a burnt-out prairie home, his back to the viewer, the carved neck and body of a guitar strapped over his belly. Charred planks and timbers reached toward the night sky. They reminded the boy of witch fingers.
The only structure left standing in the painting was a scorched brick chimney. On the mantelpiece, a clock stood intact save for the heat-shattered glass face. Across a sea of prairie grass, a passenger train shone silver in the moonlight, windows radiating warmth into a dark night. In the foreground the man embraced a guitar, black strap diagonally bisecting a white-shirted back. The lonely man, the dark night, the unreachable warmth and movement of the train all cried loneliness, abandonment, and missed chances. Desolation was lost on the boy. He was four years old and was busy making music with the man in the picture.
Months earlier, the boy’s family had moved into a federal housing project in an ancient Boston neighborhood. Red-bricked, thick-walled, and sensible, the apartments stood in ordered contrast to the crumbling wood-framed dwellings that surrounded the projects. The boy’s new home hunkered at the foot of a rounded hill where colonial citizens once withstood redcoat assaults. Now, its sacrosanct bronze plaques, statues, and cannons suffered attack from a burgeoning phalanx of post-war families. In good weather, hordes of kids swarmed up the hillside and onto the obsolete battlefield, its ancient solemnity disarmed by freshly laid footpaths, sand boxes, pipe-framed swings, park benches, and water fountains with spigots that the boy could reach without being lifted by his mother.
Inside the projects, blue steel railings bracketed the stairways and blue fire doors protected each apartment. Everything was shiny and new and there was a cared-for air to the place. A man in green coveralls, Patrick sewn onto one breast pocket in red thread, kept the hallway floors polished and smelling of wax. Patrick had a dent in his balding head. “A war wound,” the boy’s father called it.
There were plenty of kids around, even after they dragged the boy’s big sister off to first grade. The boy took charge of the situation whenever she left. He had his mom to himself and Billy O’Brien and the two Guerrier kids would come up and play. The boy owned an indestructible set of building blocks; he and the other boys built forts or stacked the blocks end-to-end in big, wobbling piles until they clattered to the floor.
The boy finished shredding the tobacco from the white paper cylinders nested in a pack of his father’s Pall Malls and crawled onto a chair to claim the second pack off the bureau. From his elevated position, he could see his father standing on the sidewalk below, foot perched on a black sedan bumper. The boy’s father worked as an engineer at an electronics company in Boston. During the war, he had helped develop underwater listening devices for the navy. A scientist, yes, but he prided himself on political prowess and his working-class sensibilities. During the Depression, he had joined the American Communist Party out of hope, out of desire, and in response to a call for justice in a troubled world.
After World War II, his left-wing fervor unabated, he loved talking politics to the people who lived in the projects. Now, he was doing just that, chattering at a big man with red hair. To the boy, the man’s red head looked small and his shoes looked big, the way they do in the funny papers.
The red-haired man nodded his small head.
His father took his foot off the car bumper. He gave the red-haired man a slap on the back.
The red-haired man laughed and stuck his thumb in the air.
The boy’s father laughed and stuck his thumb in the air, too. Then he walked away.
The red-haired man stopped laughing. He looked at the boy’s father, then looked up at the sky and rapidly touched his forehead, heart, and each shoulder.
The boy’s friend, Joey Guerrier, made the same sign when he got scared. “Keeps the devil away,” he said. The boy didn’t know from the devil. His family didn’t nail crucifixes to the bedroom walls or hang honey-toned portraits of Jesus in the living room. Nobody used the word “evil” at home, he didn’t grapple with devils and sins, and when asked, he had explained that god was the first part of “goddamn.” But now, when the red-haired man touched himself, an imaginary shadow passed over the boy, making him shiver. The tall man had just made the devil-go-home sign at his father and his father didn’t even know about it.
That night, the kitchen bulged with visitors. They leaned against counters or crowded around the table, drinking beer and drinking wine and talking about the world over platefuls of spaghetti and salad. Afterward they smoked cigarettes and stubbed out the butts in the leftover juices on their dinner plates. Ladies came as well. They smelled delicious and wore trousers or dresses covered with splashy flowers. They smoked and drank and talked right along with the men, but the boy was mostly fascinated by the big fellows in tall, pleated pants and suspenders, the men who wore hats in the house, the men who had dark whiskers and spoke with foreign accents.
The boy’s sister liked to hover in the kitchen when people came to visit. She was already seven. She would sit the men’s laps and listen to the conversation, her wide-open eyes moving from one speaker to another.
While he watched his sister, the boy’s mother told the visitors about the shredded cigarettes. “He loves to take things apart,” she explained as if he was not there.
“And records,” the boy’s father said. “Give that boy a Rachmaninoff concerto and I swear…he will reduce it to fragments, better’n any critic I ever read.”
The men laughed. The ladies sucked in their breaths. “Oh John, give the boy a break,” one said.
Sitting on a big man’s lap, the boy’s sister shook her finger at him. “Bad, bad,” she minced. “Naughty, naughty boy.” Then she kissed the top of his head the way a grownup would.
“You’re just a kid, too,” the boy said and drifted away from the ensuing laughter. The cigarette smoke made him cough. He took shelter in the living room, a favorite place, warmed by clanking radiators and illuminated by the light of shaded lamps, crammed with books and records in shelves. Paintings, photos, and sketches covered the walls.
His mother stepped into the living room and stood by the door, hands folded at her lap. “I’m sorry I told people about the cigarettes.” She turned on the phonograph. “But you made a big mess.” The boy looked up at her; she was very pretty.
“It was just between you and me,” she coo’d. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” She handed him the harmonica and kissed him. “Pick a record.”
The boy pulled chose the one with the Negro man and the train. He handed it to his mother. “No broken ones.”
“No more broken ones,” his mother repeated. “Good.” She placed the fragile graphite disc on the turntable. “There,” she said and set the needle in the groove. “Josh White sings the blues. Just right for a man with a harmonica.” She lifted him onto the easy chair, kissed him and rejoined the clamor in the kitchen.
The record played itself out in four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Conversation, thick with voices, continued in the kitchen. Its task complete, the phonograph needle hissed in the final record groove, putting out its own ragged syncopation. His mother did not reappear. The boy kept playing, bending the tune to his mind.
After the last visitor had said goodnight, after the kitchen was cleaned, after the family turned out the lights and all had fallen asleep, a wicked racket shattered the boy’s dream. Men pounded fists on the front door, the blows echoing hollow in the apartment. Slurred voices pierced the fire door.
“Open up in there, yuh god-damned communist.”
“Get yer fuckin’ commie ass out here, yuh friggin’ red bastad.”
The boy heard his mother’s voice, worried tones, ends of phrases floating upward.
“Mom…” the boy’s sister called out, fear in her voice. “What’s happening?”
“It’s nothing, dear,” his mother called down the hallway. “Go back to sleep.” Her voice shook a little.
“Go on home now.” His father’s voice sounded low and smooth, as if he was reading the funny papers to the boy and his sister. “You had your party. We all like to tie one on once in a while.”
“Come on out. Show yer face, yuh friggin’ commie coward.” The voice sounded angry, frustrated. More pounding, louder.
“Go on home,” his father warned. “You won’t want to remember this tomorrow.”
Laughter. “Remember this, ya friggin’ anarchist.” A pause, a giggle. “Piss on you.”
“Yeah. Piss on you, ya friggin’ fuckin’ anarchist.” Rumbles of laughter rolled away outside. Silence crept back into the apartment.
The boy crouched under the blankets, listening to his sister’s quick, shallow breathing. Who were these men? Why did they pound on the door? Were they his father’s friends? The red-haired man who made the devil-go-home sign — was he there, too? Why were they so angry? What were those names they shouted? What happened if the door broke?
He heard the urgent hiss and murmur of his parents’ voices. His father climbed out of bed and walked down the hallway. He rattled the doorknob and relocked the deadbolt. The footsteps padded back to the bedroom.
No one came to see the boy and his sister. Nothing relieved the blackness of the chamber. Eyes wide open, he lay awake, heart pounding.
Months later, a fleet of zeppelins passed over the projects. Relics of the war, they flew in formation on some indecipherable maneuver. Their slow-moving shadows crept across the bare trees and the snow-patched ground. Steady, fanlike, the whirring of propellers fluttered, the beating wings of a swarm of mechanical insects. Their bloated carcasses floated low in the sky, shutting out the sunhe boy covered his eyes and ears and ran for his mother’s legs. She laughed sweetly and embraced him, uttering words of comfort. He took no comfort from the shelter of her body. No comfort in her words. No comfort at all.
That night, the boy stood against the back of the armchair and peered at the Negro main on the album cover. He heard the wind that rippled the long grass. He heard the sound of the train clacking across the prairie. He felt the dark blue night surround the man in the picture and separate him from the warm train, the clacking, clattering train that pulled its passengers to safety.