I sent God a telegram this morning. The telegram read:
COULD YOU HELP ME? WE ARE MOVING. I RATHER WORRY LIKE A PITIFUL FOOL.
I sent him another one. It read:
DARLING, DON’T LET NJ BE TOO DAMN HORRIBLE.
We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like as soon as I awoke. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her damn arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, or when she’s drinking. I don’t use deodorant yet. People don’t start to smell bad, or drink, until they’re at least twelve. Are you still there, God? I think that abstract words such as smell, bad, twelve, and prepubescent are obscene beside concrete names of villages, numbers of roads, names of rivers, grades on quizzes and the dates on which almost-first kisses with eighth-grade girls almost-occurred. I often think about this on the afternoons I don’t have afterschool. I think hard as I wait for my mom or my babysitter to notice I am taking long, hard drinks of the absinthe I got from a bootlegger who goes to the middle school across town. Then they take it from me. He’s a swell guy.
I was enraged when I came home from camp and learned our New York apartment had been rented to a family of Jews and that we now owned a house in Fairbrook, New Jersey. I’m not usually left out of important family decisions. I was angry. I asked my mother why she acted like a goddamned bitch. She said, “I know too many people in Long Island.”
We hadn’t been in the house more than an hour when the doorbell rang. I answered. It was a girl. She was wearing a bathing suit.
“I’m Nancy Wheeler. A real estate agent told me about you. You’re Ernest. You’re in the sixth grade. I’m in the sixth grade.”
I wondered what else she knew.
“It’s hot. Isn’t it hot?”
“Yes. Damn hot.”
She was tall. She had bouncy hair. I wanted bouncy hair. Her nose turned up so much I could look right into her nostrils.
“Let’s go under the sprinklers.”
“I have to ask.”
I found my mother with her rear sticking out of the bottom kitchen cabinet, where we keep our liquors and liqueurs. Beside her, on the cold marble floor, was a glass of rum and soda.
“I met a girl. She wants to know if I can go under her sprinklers.”
“Do you want to?”
“If you want to.”
“I need my bathing suit.”
“Damn you to hell, Ernest. I don’t know where a goddamn bathing suit is in this mess.”
I walked back to the front door.
“I can’t find my bathing suit.”
“You can borrow one of mine.”
Nancy Wheeler had the greatness. She loved running under sprinklers, and she loved sprinklers, and I think she loved me. Everything of which she could control the locality she did in front of me all that afternoon. Never once did she look up. It made it stronger that way, and she did it for herself too, as well as for her. Because she did not look up to ask if it pleased, she did it all for herself inside, and it strengthened her, and yet she did it for me too. But she did not do it for me at any loss to herself. She gained by it all through the afternoon.
Nancy fell. She fell and she scraped her knee. Her babysitter ran outside and took her to the bathroom, where she fixed her up good with a first aid kit. Then she exiled Nancy to her room. She was punished. Nancy was not supposed to be outside. She was not supposed to be playing.
“Is there anything I can do today?” I asked the babysitter.
“No. There is nothing to do. Can I take you to your house?”
“No, thank you. I am going to stay here a while.”
“I know there is nothing to say. I cannot tell you—”
“No,” I said. “There’s nothing to say.”
“Bye,” she said. “I cannot take you to your house?”
“No, thank you.”
“It was the only thing to do,” she said. “The sprinkler had—”
“I do not want to talk about it,” I said.
“I would like to take you to your house.”
“No, thank you.”
After I got out, I shut the door and stayed there awhile, thinking about the afternoon, thinking about you, God. After a while I went out and left the house and walked back to my house in the rain.