23 June 2009

The Current Project.

The back screen door growls open and creaks shut.

Nick, a vision in denim and navy and gold rugby stripe, stands on the stoop. His eyes are generously spaced and sweet and his shoes are still untied.

“Our trenches have puddles in them,” I tell him.

He looks. “Yeah.”

“Yesterday the whole back yard was perfect for playing. The dirt was just wet enough for digging and the sun was shining. All the leaves on the ground were crisp when we put them in a pile.”

“Yeah we jumped in them.” Nick suspends Monday morning in the scattered pile of soggy leaves. He smiles. Fog particles mix with his open-mouthed breath. “Let’s go,” he concludes.

We follow the mud out to the field. It’s deepest at first base, right where the runner takes his lead off toward second. Nick stands there at first base, shoving his foot in the mud and pulling it out again, listening to the sucking sound. The mud squeezes out around his foot, decorating the soles of his new shoes in celebration of the first time Nick wears them. Nick is waiting for Jimmy, whose backyard gate nestles between the hedges at the far end of the field. Even though it’s foggy today Nick can squint and see Jimmy burst out of his backyard gate and flail across the field. Here he comes. He opened the gate from his back yard but he didn’t close it. He’s very far away but we can see the straps of his backpack crossed over like they shouldn’t be around his neck, the way Teacher Toni always asks him not to do. Jimmy runs fast because he’s so skinny.

Nick keeps dipping his shoes in the diamond mud.

Jimmy’s here. “What are you doing?” Jimmy has a speech impediment, so whenever he says a word with ‘r’ in it, it sounds like he’s saying ‘aw’. Example: ‘What aw you doing?’

Nick considers the mud, lifting his shoe in and out. Jimmy bends down and puts his fingers in it. He picks some of it up. He’s going to wipe it on us. Nick says, “Come on, we’re going to be late,” and turns to walk.

“There’s the bus!” Jimmy yells, standing up. He runs to it as the doors swing open. The bus driver greets their entrance with usual warmth to combat the grey morning.

“High fives, fellas, we’re thirty-six seconds ahead of schedule! Three fives, that makes fifteen fingers for those of you counting.”

“High! Five!” chirps Jimmy.

“Whoa, and it’s a good thing too, we’re gonna need those thirty seconds to keep you from skinning your knees, Nicky.”

Nick stares at the bus driver blankly. The bus driver’s name is Mitch. Mitch points to Nick’s shoe, laces dangling and covered in mud. Nick looks to where Mitch is pointing.

“Can’t have those trippers loose! Remember how?”

“Yeah, I was practicing.” Nick bends down and methodically manoeuvres the laces around his fingers. Nick has cultivated this skill to admirable mastery and seems to perform it with certain ceremony.

Jimmy, Nick and I make our way back to the usual seat. No one can see out the windows of the bus today. They’re all fogged over. The window next to where we usually sit has already been written in; somebody has labelled Jimmy and Nick’s seat just for them. Nick focuses on the finger drawings, his face crumpled in usual consternation. It’s his turn for the window seat today but Jimmy reaches across him and traces the letters on the window.

“Boog…b-r…buh, buh…”

Nick turns. “Jimmy, you left the gate open by your house.”

“Booger brains!” announces Jimmy in Nick’s ear. Some of the kids near us stifle a laugh. Jimmy hears it and yells it to the rest of them: “BOOGER BRAINS!”

One of them asks through giggles, “Jimmy, are you a booger brain?”
Jimmy sticks his finger up his nose. “Look! I’m pointing at my brain!” Half the bus erupts in laughter.

The bus driver yells from up in the front. He wants everyone to put a cork in it unless they are laughing at one of his jokes. Then he tells one (“What did the square say to the triangle?…”) and everyone laughs again.

“Jimmy,” says Nick, “You left the gate by your house open again.”

Jimmy still has his finger up his nose but he takes it out. “I was pointing at my brain,” he smiles. “What gate? Oh, yeah.”

Nick turns back to the window and stares out like he wants to be alone so I wander up to the front of the bus. Mitch, the bus driver, frequently talks to himself and it turns out that I’m a conversationalist of sorts too.

“…Heh…eats, shoots and leaves…heh heh heh…how many more stops have I got here, is this Pekoe Street? Man, got to get myself a decent cuppa coffee. Decent cuppa joe has a significant impact on a man’s life, could make or break a day…something like daily bread. Yeah, people lining up outside Starbucks with foodstamps! Heh.”

Mitch eases the bus to a halt at a grassy curb and swings wide the doors. “How you like this fog, kids? All aboard!” The bus scoops them up and rumbles off again. Mitch continues with a bit of a tune.

“Poor old granddad, I laughed at all his words…”

I don’t always remember Mitch issuing the incessant broadcast during time I’d known him. I’ve known Mitch for three years. One morning, three years ago, when Nick was in kindergarten for the second year (and shortly after we first met), we marched aboard the bus and into one of the bravest moments I’ve ever seen Nick embrace, in spite of his usual mumbling “Morning, Mitch.”

“Morning, old Nickelby!”

“I brought someone with me today,” Nick offered.

“Oh Nick, I don’t see Jimmy anywhere.”

“Not Jimmy. This friend has a superpower. You can’t see him!”

“Aha, invisibility! What’s your superfriend’s name?”

Nick hesitated. We had only just become friends, Nick and I, but naturally I could intuit Nick’s vacillation at Mitch’s potential patronizing reference to me as a “superfriend”. Plus we hadn’t talked about names yet.

Nick focused on his velcro-strap shoes. “His name is Buh…Bert.”

“Nice to meet you, Bert. My name’s Mitch.”

Here he paused long enough for a person to say, “A pleasure to meet you, too, Mitch,” and since this is the type of thing Nick would imagine a friend to say when meeting someone new, this is what I said.

“As long as you won’t use your superpower for evil,” he continued, “feel free to ride on my bus!”

Mitch’s discourse with me pleased little Nick. It reinforced Nick’s unarticulated belief that Mitch understood the nature of secrets. This was true. Mitch kept the secrets of virtually every child on his route. Mitch knew things even children’s best friends couldn’t awn. He knew Laurie Spatchle wasn’t out sick with the flu all last week, per se, but that Mrs. Spatchle had confused dandruff shampoo with head lice treatment shampoo. Better said, she had misinterpreted Laurie’s little white symptoms and laundered every launderable in the house all for the sake of little Laurie’s itchy, flaky scalp.

Mitch Kranzenhupf was a veritable filter for hurt. Mitch even seemed to keep the “secret” of Nick’s self-evident delayed development hidden from himself in order to treat him the same as the rest of the children. Each of the “routies”, as he liked to call them, he greeted with congruent gusto and sealed their secrets with a magical wink.

At this point in the story of me meeting Mitch for the first time, he presented us with precisely such a wink and we took our seats on the bus. Ever since that day, Mitch is the only person besides Nick who knows about me, knows that we’re a team, knows that I’m a superfriend wrought into existence by the power of Nick’s faith in make-believe.