Vic says that phone booths aren’t around nowadays because nobody likes to feel trapped. He’s always telling me things like that even though I’m not really sure what they mean. Sometimes I think he forgets that I’m only nine. But I’m glad he does.
Last week I asked him if the dinosaurs left because they felt trapped too. Vic just smiled, “You may be on to something there,” he said, “but in any case, I’d much rather be trapped inside of a telephone booth than inside of a dinosaur.”
He’s not like the other tutors I’ve had. Vic never looks up at the clock to see whether it’s time for him to leave. In fact, he doesn’t seem too concerned with time at all. He stays around late, and we talk about school. Vic’s in college, and I’m in the fourth grade, but he thinks that the two aren’t so different after all. For one thing, he says you never stop being confused.
Another thing about Vic is that his hair is long—really long! Vic told me that his parents would never let him grow it out when he was a kid, so ever since he left home, Vic hasn’t cut his hair once.
Next week I have my first piano recital since we moved, and Vic told me that he would come to see me play. I’m not so good at a lot of things, but I can make plenty of noise on the piano, and people seem to like that. It’ll be nice to have my mom and Vic there because everyone is usually too busy. My dad might even come too if he’s not stuck with work.
We moved here to Providence about a month ago after my dad got his new job. My parents both agreed that we would need a bigger house. I don’t like it here, though. My dad’s never home; he’s always going on business trips, meeting suit-people. I see him on the TV sometimes and they call him “ senator” instead of Mr. Dowry, which seems strange to me because “ senator” isn’t really his name.
My room is up on the second floor in this house, which means I have to go all the way up the stairs every time I want to sleep. And they won’t let me sleep on the couch anymore, so I’m stuck with it. There’s another room next to mine, though. I think it’s supposed to be some sort of an extra closet, but there aren’t any clothes in there, just empty hangers. It’s kind of like a closet before it’s actually a closet. I use it for my ninja training. Since my training room has a big vent on the wall, I can usually hear what everyone is saying downstairs. I sneak to the closet when I can and perform secret undercover missions.
Most of the time I can hear my mom talking on the phone. She’s always on the phone. I could hear her saying “Spencer keeps asking if we can get one…Well, I don’t have anything against dogs, Cheryl, I just don’t particularly care for having one in my house. Anyways, I’m busy enough as it is right now. I don’t need any more complications.… Yes, still trying to build support for it.… Well you’re right about that.… Spencer has been having a hard time too.… Once he gets used to the new school, I think he’ll be fine, though.… Oh you know, it’s just kid stuff. He hasn’t made any friends yet, and he’s been missing his father a lot. But at least his grades are improving.”
I heard the doorbell ring and my mom told the phone to hold on for a moment.
“Hello, Victor,” my mom said as the door creaked its way open.
“Hi there, Mrs. Dowry. How are you tonight?” Vic asked.
“Just fine, Victor. Go right on upstairs. Spencer should be busy studying already.”
“Be a dear and make sure that the door is closed up there; I’ve got a few more business calls to attend to.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Dowry.”
“And look, I don’t want to hear music coming from upstairs tonight. You just take care of teaching science and leave the music for his piano teacher.”
“He was just showing me some songs that⎯”
“All right, Victor?”
I jumped up and tried to get back to my room before Vic made it up the stairs, but there was something holding onto me. I was suddenly trapped, and I couldn’t get out. I started to panic and shook my arms like crazy. Little streaks of golden light slipped in through the slits in the doorway, and I could see dust flying everywhere.
All of the sudden my sweater ripped, and I was free. It must have been caught on one of the hangers all along. I ran back into my room as quickly as I could. My science book was hiding somewhere. I looked all around for it until I finally spotted it in the wastebasket. Just as I tossed it on the table and sat down, Vic walked in.
“Hey there, Baron von Spence. How’s the studying coming along?” Vic started calling me that because he says I play piano like an old jazz musician. And old jazz musicians, he says, all have names of royalty, like Duke Ellington, King Oliver, and Count Basie.
“Good,” I replied.
“It must be tough.”
“Reading upside down.” I looked at the book out in front of me and began to feel embarrassed. “I wouldn’t put it over on you, though. You’ve already got that backwards alphabet-thing mastered.”
“Boggles my mind every time. One of these days you're going to have to teach me that.”
“We can do it today!”
“Nice try. But today, we’re going to learn about⎯can I get a drum roll, please?”
I started drumming on the desk, and Vic announced, “Inertia!
“Okay. First of all,” he said, “close your book, because you’re not going to need it yet. Right now, just try to understand what I’m getting at. Simply put, inertia doesn’t want things to change. If an object is moving, it will continue to move forever in that same way unless a force acts on it. And if an object is at rest, inertia will keep it at rest. What is it, Baron Spence? You don’t have to raise your hand.”
“So inertia doesn’t really do anything?”
“I mean, in a way, you’re right.”
“Then why does it have a name?”
“Well, maybe just so we can try to understand our world a little better. I think it’s important to at least be able to try. Now just stay with me here for a minute. Imagine that there’s a⎯what’s your favorite animal?”
“A pterodactyl, sure; why not? Okay. So imagine that this pterodactyl is flying around in the sky. Once it begins flying, it’s just going to keep on moving through the air until some external force acts upon it. Now, give me any type of external force.”
“Now we’re talking! So this pterodactyl is sailing through the air, minding its own business, being an absolutely terrific example of the law of inertia to us, when all of the sudden, it gets struck by lightning. And then what happens?”
“No. Well, maybe. But that’s not the point. Ok. I think we’ve been going at this thing all wrong. Grab your text book.”
“Aw,” I groaned, “I hate reading from the book.”
“Who said anything about reading? Now, look: do you see this toy truck here?” Vic picked up a bright red tow truck from my floor and started filling it with plastic army men.
“Uh-huh,” I nodded.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll angle the book so that the tow truck will roll down it. You hold out your hand flat and try to stop the truck once it reaches the bottom. Got it, Baron Spence?”
“I think so.”
“Ok. So think of it like this: once the tow truck starts rolling, the law of inertia will keep it rolling, because inertia wants things to stay the way they are. Your hand is the external force here. You’re in control. So just watch what happens to the army men once the truck runs into your hand.” Vic picked up the truck and sent it rolling down its path. When it got to the bottom, it hit my hand and all the army men flew out. “Ok. Did you see that?”
“So what’s happening to those little army men once the truck hits your hand?”
“They’re inertia-ing,” I said.
Vic started laughing really hard, and I started laughing because Vic was laughing. And for a couple minutes we just sat and laughed together. After we stopped, Vic looked up and said, “You know, you’re just like me when I was your age, only a hell of a lot smarter.”
* * *
My mom likes to eat at health-food restaurants even though they smell like fake plants and incense. My dad hates going to these restaurants as much as I do, but ever since Dad got his new job, my mom has been taking me to these kinds of places more and more. I don’t understand it.
“Monday,” my mom said, “you have your swimming lesson at five. After that, Mrs. Larkin has agreed to take you up to the art gallery so you can see the new Impressionist exhibit. That should get you home by eight and give you plenty of time to take care of your chores and your schoolwork. Spencer, are you listening to me?”
“All right, then. Tuesday after school you have your tennis lesson with Ivan. Once you get home and shower, you can get started on your science homework. Victor should be over at seven, so you don’t have any time to waste. Wednesday, you’ll have your piano recital. I may be stuck downtown at a meeting that night, so Mrs. Larkin⎯”
“Do you think Dad will come?”
“Your father is a very busy man, Spencer.”
“He’s not coming, is he?”
Before she could answer, the waitress walked up to take our order. Her nametag read, “Izzy.” Izzy’s shirt was white, but the tiny Christmas lights all around the restaurant made it look gold instead.
“I’ll take the organic celery salad with tofu on top,” my mom said. “And now, I don’t want to go too crazy, but maybe a side of the millet toast as well.”
“What about you, sweetheart?” Izzy asked me.
“I’m not too hungry tonight, but thank you very much for asking.”
“What is it, Spencer?” my mom sighed.
“I don’t want to eat anything.” Ninjas don’t have to eat if they don’t want to.
“Because some people don’t have food, and I don’t want to eat it all up.”
My mom looked up at the waitress and signaled her to come back in another minute. Then she turned towards me and frowned. “Where did you hear that, Spencer?”
“Vic told me. He said that lots of people in the world don’t get to eat three meals a day and that sometimes they don’t eat anything at all. He also said that bulls are colorblind, but somehow belly-button lint is always blue no matter what color shirt you wear.”
“First of all, there’s plenty of food to go around, so don’t you feel ashamed of eating. Some people just have too much and others don’t have enough. There were days when I was a little girl where we didn’t eat anything at all, and not because we didn’t want food, but because we didn’t have it. Your father and I do what we do now so you don’t have to live like that⎯so nobody has to live like that. But don’t you refuse to take what we’ve worked to give you, because that’s an insult. It’s an insult to our generation. Do you understand me, Spencer?”
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“What was that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I corrected.
“That’s more like it.”
“Since we have to eat, can we eat at McDonalds instead?”
My mom signaled Izzy, and she came over to take my order again. Her shirt didn’t look so gold anymore. I noticed it had stains all over it. I couldn’t tell if they were there before and I hadn’t noticed them or if they had just shown up. I still wasn’t very hungry, but I didn’t want to make my mom upset, so I ordered spaghetti and a side of garlic millet bread. Izzy smiled at me and I said, “Thank you, Waitress.”
“Spencer,” shrugged my mom, “what is wrong with you tonight? She has a name. Apologize to⎯” she paused to look up at Izzy’s nametag, “Izzy, this instant!”
“It’s al lright,” Izzy said, “I think he’s just being cute with me.” And Izzy gave me a big smile.
“Go ahead and apologize, Spencer,” my mom repeated.
“But people call Dad by the name of his job all the time.”
“Because being a senator is a prestigious job, and you call someone that out of respect. But if you call someone ‘Waitress’ … that’s rude.”
“But why?” I asked.
“We may need another minute, Izzy,” my mom said. When Izzy left, my mom started giving me a long lecture about respect. But it didn’t make any sense to me. I guess there are some things I just don’t understand.
After my mom had been going on for a while, she stopped talking and suddenly her eyes got real big. The size of Uncle Chester’s belly. They roamed back and forth in her head, from side to side, like she was trying to shake off whatever it was she saw. She stared off into the distance without a word.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“What do you say we go get you some McDonalds now?” she said.
* * *
It’s always dark in a closet that’s not yet a closet, but I never get scared. Ninjas don’t get scared. No matter what happens to them, they always find a way out. That’s what makes them ninjas.
“What was I supposed to do?” my mom said into the phone. “Yes, I’m sure it was Victor.… Well, what would you have done? He was sitting in the booth with another boy, and they were, you know, together.… No, there was nothing platonic about it, it was.… I don’t have anything against that lifestyle, I just don’t want Spencer to, I mean, God forbid he ever.… Well, why didn’t he come out and tell us in the first place.… Look, I’ll deal with it.… No, there’s no need for that; I said I’ll deal with it.”
The sound of the doorbell rang out, and I heard my mom tell my dad goodbye. The phone crashed down hard against the receiver.
“Victor,” my mom said flatly, as the door opened.
“Hi, Mrs. Dowry; should I just go on upstairs?”
“Hold on for a minute, Victor. Would you take a seat? I’d like to have a talk.”
“Victor,” she said, pausing for a moment, “I need your advice on something.”
“Of course. What is it, Mrs. Dowry?”
“I’m sure you know that Spencer has been quite persistent about asking for a dog lately. You like dogs, don’t you, Victor?”
“Certainly. Who doesn’t like dogs?”
“You’d be surprised. There are some people out there who aren’t very fond of dogs. I, of course, have nothing but respect for them. They’re intelligent and beautiful creatures, God knows that. And they’re certainly great company. But, you see, I have my reservations too.”
“I’ve got to think about what’s best for Spencer. Spencer is young, too young to understand a lot of things in this world, and I’m not sure he’s old enough to deal with something of that magnitude just yet. I mean, having a dog, of course.”
“Of course. But they aren’t just something you deal with. Man’s best friend, remember? ”
“They bite, Victor. All animals bite. And even a friendly animal can be dangerous to a child. Most of the time the animal itself isn’t even aware of that.”
“They can also protect. Trust me, there are far worse things in the world.”
“They may think they’re protecting, but when it comes down to it, they’re not. No matter how harmless an animal looks, there’s always a chance something will happen. And I’m not willing to take any chances. Not with my only son. Do you understand what I’m getting at, Victor?”
“You know it’s nothing personal.”
“Ah, I see.” There was a long silence, and I could hear my heart beating through my chest. It was so quiet downstairs that I wondered if they could hear it too. But somehow, deep down, I knew that they couldn’t. They were just too far away.
“It looks like it’s getting late, Victor,” my mom said, “maybe it’s about time you started heading home.”
“Yes, I’m afraid it does look that way, doesn’t it? By the way,” he said, “be glad you left when you did; the food wasn’t so good the other night. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.”
“Goodnight,” my mom said. And all I could hear was the echo of the door as it closed shut.
* * *
I was the last person to perform at the recital. Two girls played violin before me, and one boy played the trumpet. I’m sure they all sounded very nice, but, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t really listening. I’m not exactly sure what I was doing.
By the time it was my turn to play, I’d nearly forgotten what songs I was supposed to perform. I walked up to the piano and looked at the keys. They were black and white like they always were, but the stage lights made them look gold instead. My piano teacher placed the music out in front of me and wished me good luck. I started playing Chopin’s “Nocturne in E Flat.”
I looked out at the audience, but I didn’t recognize anyone. No one was there⎯not my dad, not my mom, and not Vic. I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept playing. I played Thelonious Monk’s “Memories of You” and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” I was only supposed to play three songs, but I couldn’t stop. I played everything I knew and even some things that I didn’t really know. I played Enrique Chia’s “El Reloj” and Chopin’s “Nocturne in C# Minor.” I even played a song that Vic once let me listen to, called “The Well-Meaning Professor” by Eluvium.
Everyone in the crowd just sat and listened as I played. They didn’t know quite what else to do. I didn’t know either. My fingers wouldn’t quit jumping from note to note. And there was nothing in the world to stop me, so I just kept going.