Quincy Purchase was albino, one-in-17,000, and if that was not enough he had that name. His parents worked, his sisters roamed and hibernated—out all night or shut in their bedrooms, incense escaping under their doors. He had no friends but imagined all eyes on him in his elementary school hallways or as he circled the block, alone and desperate to avoid the bungalow where he slept.
At the end of summer before sixth grade he noticed a ten-speed and a banana-seat coaster dead on the lawn of a house where old people had lived forever. There was a new S on the garage door, and an unraveled hose on the driveway.
“Kid!” someone shouted from an upstairs window. Quincy saw the flash of a face between black shutters. Moments later JW Spain was running through his front door, straw hair slapping his forehead. He stopped like a snowball hitting a brick wall, inches from Quincy’s face. It would not have been Quincy’s first fight.
“You from here?” JW said, as if he needed an answer as soon as possible. He pushed his golden hair to the sides, like a housekeeper opening curtains to let in the light. Tiny freckles climbed up the sides of his nose.
“Well, yeah….” Quincy said, wondering what else he would be doing in Joliet if he were not from there.
“Where’s King?” JW said, the words coming out so fast they practically blended together.
Quincy felt a thump in his stomach at the mention of the junior high school he would be attending in a few days. He hated school. Hated school and hated home. He lifted his arm and pointed at a telephone pole, imagining everything beyond it—the house with the two-legged wiener dog, 7-Eleven, Dutch Boy’s paint store and King Junior High.
“How far?” JW said.
“Fifteen minutes,” Quincy said.
“That’s my school,” JW said. “You go there?”
“I’m going to,” Quincy said.
“You from here?” JW said again.
“Yeah, I just told you.”
“I’ll be in sixth,” Quincy said.
“Same,” JW said. He then looked at Quincy carefully and completely for the first time, hair down to feet.
“Why is your hair so white?” JW said, his speech slowing to a reasonable rate. Apparently all of the urgent questions were out of the way.
“I’m albino,” Quincy said.
“My hair is white like this,” he said. “And my skin is fair. I was born like this and I will always be this way.”
“What do you mean, fair?”
“Pale,” Quincy said.
“What if you get tan?” JW said.
“I can’t,” Quincy said. “I get burned.”
JW walked toward his house. He had asked everything he ever wanted to know about albinism and was onto something else. He opened the front door of the Spain house, turned to Quincy and said, “Come and check out my chromes.” How Quincy has wished some days that he never would have made that journey, and how other days he convinces himself that everything became so much brighter at the end of those eight or nine footsteps. When Quincy Purchase entered the Spain house, he moved into his second life.
The pee stain in the shape of Alaska had appeared on the Purchase carpet months earlier. Quincy noticed the resemblance and when he opened the Encyclopedia Britannica to the Alaska map and set it next to the stain, it looked as if it had been traced. There was even a low-arc dribble representing the Aleutian Islands. The dog the Purchases had kept while their neighbors were away was one hell of a urine cartographer. When Quincy thought about it, the stain looked almost like a self-portrait of Larry himself, a profile of his head with the islands standing in for a thin rawhide treat clenched between his teeth. Larry the terrier. Quincy would miss that borrowed dog, and he would think of him every time he stepped over that “Last Frontier.”
The Purchase house was a mess, and not just because clothes were hanging off of light sconces and drying racks, or because crusty food went sour on plates in the sink. The house was either all chaos or desperate calm. Nothing was reliable. Even the light bulbs went from white to black to yellow when Quincy’s sisters had anything to do with it. Their hair changed colors just as often. To them, Quincy was little more than a yield sign, barely worth their attention on the road to whatever it was they wanted next. Quincy wished he could have sat on their laps and watched movies when he was younger. He wished they would look at his drawings, and ask him questions.
Quincy took his first step into the Spain house to look at those chromes. He smelled lemons. The air was cool, and when JW shut the door behind him everything outside looked like it was part of a silent movie. Trees trembled in the hot wind. Cars floated by. There was a hum and whoosh in the house, both from the air conditioning and the white carpet that bounced underfoot. Framed pictures were grouped in threes on the walls and the furniture matched, looking like a little family all its own. Quincy had never seen a house so done, so complete. He followed JW up the stairs to his bedroom, four bare walls cradling a bed and dresser, open drawers spilling over with clothes. JW reached into a tangle of T-shirts.
“Where’s all your stuff?” Quincy said.
“What stuff?” JW said, looking around for something that resembled stuff.
“Like posters or something,” Quincy said.
“I don’t know,” JW said, indicating I don’t know what you are talking about more than I don’t know where the stuff is. “You got any chromes?”
“No,” Quincy said. “What’s a chrome?”
JW’s hand emerged from the drawer of shirts to reveal a brown sock stuffed heavily and tied off with a knot. It looked like a cloth grenade with a bow on it. He struggled to untie the knot and emptied the sock onto his bedspread.
“They’re not on every wheel but they’re out there if you look,” JW said. He showed Quincy hexagons, flat-tops, round-tops and extenders.
“What are you going to do with them?” Quincy said.
The answer was so obvious JW considered not even speaking it out loud.
“Collect them,” he said finally. He handed Quincy two extenders and two hexagon covers. They were heavy in Quincy’s hand. When they caught the sun through the window Quincy was sure he had just received a valuable gift. He made a fist, moved it to his hip, opened his fingers and let the chromes drop to the bottom of his pocket. They tinked against one another and stopped with a jolt. JW and Moon admired the shiny pile of stolen goods on the bed, lost in their own thoughts until they heard falsetto singing downstairs.
“Red hot mama, Vel-vet charmer…”
“My brother!” JW shouted. He ran from his room, abandoning the chromes and Quincy, a sonic trail of uneven thuds and moans in the hallway and stairwell.
“Purchase!” JW shouted.
“Yeah?” Quincy said, loud enough only for himself to hear.
Quincy followed the voice through the house, deeper into his second life, and when he found JW he also found two other Spains, the three of them facing Quincy like a human picket fence. There was a woman in an apron, a boy who may as well have been a man, and JW. The older boy’s jaw came together like a plow, and the bottom half of his face was dark with whiskers. His forehead was as flat and wide as a pancake turner.
He let go of the textbooks under his arm, loose papers falling to the floor like feathers from a shot bird. He flexed his biceps and froze a smile on his face, looking at Quincy as if they had known each other for years, for lifetimes. Afraid to look away, Quincy smiled back as shades of red deepened on Tim Spain’s face and a vein bulged in his forehead. It looked like a worm had burrowed into his skin. Quincy stole quick glances at Tim’s rocky arms and throat but every time he returned to Tim’s eyes they were focused on him. It was a staring contest, a test of meddle. Tim Spain let out his air. Through pursed lips he made a “pshhhh” sound followed by a roar of “haaaaahrr” and he shook involuntarily as he lowered his arms.
“Give your mother a kiss, muscle man,” Mrs. Spain said. Tim stepped to his mother and did not resist when she pulled him close and pressed her cheek to his. He was a massive heap of knobby muscle bent at the waist, waiting for release. Mrs. Spain whispered into Tim’s ear as JW and Quincy stood facing each other, silently, not knowing they would become best friends, if they had not done so already, unaware that their lives would get so crudely knotted.
“Who’s this?” Tim said. He cut a triangle of cake and held it in his bare hand. He chewed like a wild animal, open-mouthed and loud.
“Quincy Purchase,” JW said.
“Quince-a-who?” Tim said, walking away. “Be here at ten tonight. Both of you. ”
It sounded non-negotiable but Quincy did not think he would be able to comply. His body was more suited to the evening—no burn, no glare—and so was his mind. Although he was awake past 10 p.m. every night, he was never outside. He retreated to his bedroom after supper, listening to his clock radio and flipping through stacks of Circus magazines, Montgomery Ward catalogues and his sisters’ yearbooks.
Quincy wondered what would happen if he did not show up at the Spain house that night. Would Tim Spain tear him to pieces the next time he saw him? Quincy had known the Spains for less than a day and already he was on a night mission with them? The thought of what might happen to him if he did not show up seemed worse to Quincy than actually showing up, so that evening he turned on his radio, turned off his light and closed the door as he did every other night. Only this time, when he closed the door, he was on the other side. Quincy was in the hallway, fully dressed, his high tops laced and tied. No one checked on him any other night, he thought. Why would they start now?
He quietly opened the back door of their bungalow and he was outside. He imagined the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens a door and everything turns from black-and-white to color. The night was a luminous green and purple. The air was soft, like warm bath water on his arms. Bushes and trees drooped, heavy with dew. It was dark black and bright at the same time. A bird chirped a gentle alarm.
Quincy imagined eyes upon him, animal and human, and expected lights to snap on as he crossed lawns and slowly pushed through chain link gates that he thought might squeal. Entering back yards felt like trespassing even in daylight but at night it was worse. He hurried across lighted streets, relieved to be off of private property but cursing the exposing glare. When he reached the Spain house a block away it felt like the end of an ocean crossing. Along the side of the house was a garden hose, coiled and resting on a bed of smooth rocks, like a mother snake protecting her eggs.
A yellow glow spilled out through a side window of the Spain house. Quincy peeked. JW was sitting at the kitchen table, dropping sugar from a spoon and making designs in it with his finger. Twice he swept the sugar to the edge of the table and back into the bowl. Quincy thought about turning for home and going to bed, sleeping through the night and pretending none of this had ever happened. He thought about pretending that JW did not exist, that the entire Spain house was not real, that there were no chromes, that there was no Tim. But that vision of JW, a kid Quincy hardly knew—head dipped, finger in sugar—reminded Quincy that he was that kid, too. He was that kid in different ways but he was that kid. Quincy raised his white knuckles to the diamond window in the back door and rapped on the glass.
“Look for stuff we can use,” Tim said as they walked out into the Spains’ back yard.
Quincy had to ask, “What kind of stuff?”
“Anything,” Tim said.
Again Quincy had to ask, “Use for what?”
“This isn’t school, man,” Tim said. “Just look for cool stuff.”
He was of the belief that everything in the neighborhood was theirs to take. The only things Quincy saw were old yard tools and plastic children’s toys, and when they came upon a concrete patio with wrought iron furniture and a raised canvas umbrella, Quincy imagined a family sitting there earlier in the evening. He thought of his own patio and its rusty steel table, which never got used or put away, even in winter. Tim sat in one of the chairs and soon all three boys were seated on a stranger’s back patio, Citronella candles extinguished but still fragrant.
“What about this?” Quincy whispered, pointing to the umbrella stretched out above their heads. He almost could not believe what he was saying. Tim looked up at the sprawling canvas, little cloth balls hanging along its edge.
“Too noisy,” Tim said. “We’d wake everybody in the house. But good idea, Moonshine.”
Moonshine. It sounded like a title of honor, a reward for being a good soldier. The umbrella was tilted just enough to let the light of the full moon hit Quincy’s skin: his bare arms, his pale neck and face. Tim and JW stared at him, stiff as statues, enchanted by his appearance. Quincy could almost hear them thinking, Damn, look at this kid glow. Tim looked up again, past the umbrella this time and into the night sky.
“Moon,” he said to Quincy. “You’re ‘Moon.’”
They walked home that night without a single thing they could use but Quincy had been knighted by Tim Spain and was sure he was in possession of the coolest nickname on earth.
In the following months Tim led JW and Moon on more dark walks, peeking into basements, rummaging through garages, stealing what they could carry home. Boxes of nails, sheets of sandpaper, gas cans, soldering irons, water skis. Tim later put JW and Moon in increasing danger, and the more he led them, the easier they were led. Moon spent after-school hours and some evenings at the Spain house, no longer compelled to circle the block on foot, no longer a friend of no one. JW and Tim Spain felt as much like siblings to Moon as his own sisters did, and Moon envied JW for having Tim as his older brother.
What Tim told JW and Moon to do, they did. Moon tried to imagine actually doing something his sisters told him to do. Dye his hair black? Drink bourbon? He learned to defy everything they suggested. Something was not right with the way they moved through life and somehow Moon knew this, sensed it, though he did not know how it might be made right. The danger that Tim offered was more seductive than anything Moon’s sisters could offer. Even when Tim encouraged Moon and JW to volunteer for dangerous stunts (sledding off of the Spain roof, getting dragged being a motorcycle), they idolized him. They wanted to emulate him. He frightened them and effortlessly controlled them. He also turned away from them at times, focusing quietly on the construction of beautiful war weapons. This aloofness made the boys long for his attention even more.
Tim was particularly gifted at making models, his bedroom a menagerie of World War II fighter planes and battleships trained on him as he slept. At least a dozen airplanes hung above his head. Toothy grimaces hand-painted on plastic fuselages and red dots on wings, Tim’s air squadron looked like a swarm of frozen birds. His shelves were filled with gray battleships pointed directly at him. Guns poised, it was as if all of the waters of the sea led to Tim Spain’s bed and there lay everything in this world worth fighting for.
“The wings on Corsairs fold up,” Tim said, demonstrating with two chicken drumsticks at the supper table.
“Timothy,” Mrs. Spain said. “Don’t play with your food. We have company.”
In the weeks that followed, “company” became “Quincy” and “Quincy” became “Moon,” even to Mr. and Mrs. Spain. After dinner JW and Moon often followed the tangerine scent of epoxy, up the stairs and into Tim’s bedroom to watch him press together plastic parts and apply decals with tweezers. Days later a new F4U Corsair, P-38 Lightning or A6M Zero would hang above his bed, suspended by almost-invisible fishing line.
JW and Moon ran to Tim’s canary yellow Chevelle every time he offered to drive them somewhere. Moon loved the fat rear tires, the gurgle of the engine and the painfully loud stereo system. He found comfort in the mild burning smell of Tim’s do-it-yourself electrical work. The petroleum fumes that filled the back seat were the only drawback. Moon’s solution was to bury his nose in his armpit, slyly, as if he were craning his neck to look at something they had just passed in a blur. He refrained from pulling his shirt up over his nose for fear of offending Tim. Or angering him.
“Let’s go surfing,” Tim said, firing his engine and pinning down the gas pedal. The entire neighborhood could hear Tim start his car. Surfing sounded like the most preposterous idea imaginable in Joliet, a land-locked blue collar town known for its prisons, railroad yard, abandoned steel factory and limestone bluffs. A shipping canal cut the town in half, and there were a few deep quarries full of rain water. But surfing?
“Where are we surfing?” Moon said. “On the canal?”
“Sort of,” Tim said. He left the marks and stench of melting rubber in front of the Spain house, and in just a few disorienting minutes the three of them were downtown. The Chevelle coughed itself quiet in a parking spot next to the canal’s concrete wall, and the three of them looked out onto the oil-black water. Rising behind them was a craggy bluff the color of margarine left out on the counter overnight. This was where Abraham Lincoln had slept when he was in town to debate Stephen Douglas. Or where the Lincoln Hotel had once stood. Where someone famous had slept. Something like that. Something from school.
“Walk casually,” Tim said. “Don’t look all nervous.”
JW and Moon became instantly nervous.
“What are we doing?” JW said.
“Surfing,” Tim said. “I told you.” JW sent a look to Moon, and Moon looked at the rippling water. They moved in a tight pack, up a concrete ramp and onto the wooden sidewalk of an old steel bridge.
“Stay out of the bridge tender’s view,” Tim said. Moon did not see anyone tending the bridge but knew there had to be someone in that squatty tower because the Joliet bridges went up and down all day. Moon had been stuck in a car, waiting for a bridge to rise or come down, hundreds of times. Jefferson Street. McDonough. Jackson. Ruby. Cass.
At the center of the bridge’s expanse were steel teeth, like a massive zipper beneath their feet. They stopped at the zipper. Tim stepped off of the gray wooden planks and into the framework of the bridge. Thick layers of green paint bubbled and gobbed around rivets that looked a thousand years old. Tim motioned for JW and Moon to join him.
Facing Tim and following his lead, they wedged themselves into a vertical I-beam, as if they were peanut butter smeared into the gulley of a celery stalk. The boys fit into the same size I-beam that Tim filled out completely on his own.
“We’re standing up now but when the bridge rises to let the barges go through we’ll be lying on our backs,” Tim whispered. “We’ll be surfing in the sky.”
JW and Moon each gripped their side of the I-beam and wedged themselves in even tighter.
“Press your head against the back of the beam,” Tim said. “Keep your weight back.”
Moon felt a rumble in his stomach. Tim popped out from his I-beam and took a step toward the boys, standing on the zipper. “Can you guys swim?” he said. Moon felt another rumble and thought about running to the car. But something held him in that beam. Loyalty to Tim perhaps, or fear of Tim.
“It’ll be coming from that way,” Tim said. He was standing in front of JW and Moon, like a carnival ride operator ready to send his customers into a haunted house, or up onto some sort of whirling wheel. Moon saw a bridge parting in the distance. Soon, another bridge went up, and another, and finally Moon could see ripples rolling toward their bridge, the front end of a barge plowing through polluted water. The canal water was so dirty it was believed that a foot of poisonous gas hovered above it at all times. If a person were to fall into the water he would die almost instantly, even before he drowned, Moon had heard. If the gases did not get him, the undertow would.
The leading barge neared, with a line of barges behind it and a smoke-spitting riverboat at the rear. Bells pealed and a siren rang.
“Keep your heads back!” Tim shouted.
Moon drove the back of his head into the I-beam, snugging it between rivets. The bridge jolted. Within seconds JW and Moon were bouncing gently and Moon could feel the fullness of the bridge’s power, the gravity of what they were doing. Tim still had a foot on each side of the zipper, thick green teeth slowly separating beneath him.
“Catch a wave!” he shouted.
Tim kept a foot planted on each set of teeth as the bridge parted slowly, unevenly. He extended his arms for balance. One leg bent and the other extended, Tim was as graceful and composed as a big wave surfer. He was in control, at peace in the romance of danger. The two sides continued to rise, and just before he would have gone into the splits Tim lunged away from JW and Moon.
Moon listened for a splash, trying to block out the cacophony of warnings: the siren, the bells, the roaring white noise of the wake, the chugging engine. Moon listened for water. This made all of Tim’s other stunts seem almost quaint.
After a careful inching-up, JW and Moon’s side of the bridge rose with great force and speed. Moon tried not to make a sound but he heard himself groaning, the involuntary sound of fear. When the last glimpses of limestone bluffs and peeling Victorian mansions fell from view he saw nothing but a cloudless sky. For a moment Moon felt like he was floating, like he would never again have to be anyplace but in the endless blue reaches of the air.
The bridge stopped at the top. JW and Moon were nearly flat, silent. Moon imagined the two sides looking like praying hands that did not quite meet at the top. Dented, bent barges slid beneath them. The riverboat growled, water gurgled. When JW called out for Tim, he got no response.
“He probably can’t hear us,” Moon whispered, hoping that Tim was not being churned and battered under the barges. JW and Moon lay motionless for what seemed like their whole lives, trapped in the beautiful shapeless sky. Moon would have liked to stay up there forever, to never come down and never hear what happened to Tim. Moon wished he could have kept going, up and up, into that endless blue. He would not miss his sisters because he knew they would not miss him. His parents would not even notice he was gone, he told himself.
The bridge jerked again and began its descent. Moon forced his head even harder into the I-beam, convinced that if Tim had not fallen on the way up, one of them would fall on the way down. Someone would get crushed between those vicious teeth, Moon thought. Some kind of tragedy was bound to happen. But as the bridge sides lowered, the city came back into view. Church steeples and widow’s peaks poked up through leafy bluffs. The new Bicentennial Park band shell looked beautiful and inviting. Nothing bad could happen on this day, Moon thought.
Down they went, slowly, slowly, and when they were low enough to see across to Tim’s side of the bridge, there in front of them was an empty I-beam. It was the barest, most desperate-looking place Moon had ever seen. He vomited straight out into the air, bile burning his throat, remnants of lunch dripping down the framework of the bridge and through the green fangs. Moon imagined Tim fighting for his life in the black water, showered in vomit. Moon hoped that was the case—that Tim was alive and fighting.
“Where’s Tim?” Moon said. “Where’s Tim!”
“Did he jump to our side?” JW said, as if he had just awoken from a night’s sleep.
“Look in the water!” Moon said. He was shivering with fear—the back of his neck, his forearms, his calves—afraid that Tim had fallen but also afraid that he might fall himself. He could not pull himself out of the I-beam until the teeth were completely together.
The water directly below the bridge was out of sight. Moon could see only the rippling black wake behind the tugboat. When the teeth locked into place Moon leaped to the wooden sidewalk and leaned over the railing.
“Tim!” he shouted down at the water. “Tim!”
Moon thought about jumping in the water, forgetting—or possibly not caring in that moment—about the massive undertow and the killing gases. Saving Tim’s life would be worth his own, he thought.
“Tim!” he shouted, thinking he might get sick again.
Black water swirled, and surface bubbles floated away as Moon heard a low cackle behind him. Something in the tone was familiar, so familiar it snapped him out of his focus on the water, and on saving Tim’s life. Moon spun and saw Tim leaning against an I-Beam, arms crossed. He was smirking.
“Why would you want to look at the water?” Tim said. “You’ve never seen floating puke before?”
Moon felt such relief that he wanted to run to Tim and hug him, something he had never done. He could not recall ever even touching him except for during games of knee tackle football in the Spains’ living room.
Moon did not hesitate in those instances to hurl himself at Tim, his thick, muscled body barely acknowledging the contact even when Moon landed his shoulder squarely against Tim’s ribs or throat. But shaking Tim’s hand or slapping him five after a game seemed beyond possibility.
“The second beam back from the teeth is the safest,” Tim said. “But the first beam has the best view.” Moon considered lunging at Tim in celebration, delivering a knee tackle football-style blow to his torso.
“How’d you like the view?” Tim said, resting his elbows on the railing and watching bridges fall in the distance. Moon thought about Tim’s decision to put his brother and Moon in the first beam, the dangerous beam, while he moved to a safer one. JW fought back tears and Moon felt embarrassed for being so concerned. You cared—the joke’s on you!
From the sidewalk on the bridge everything looked ordinary. Silver steeples no longer flashed in the sun, old houses appeared to be that much closer to toppling, and cars were big and clumsy, like giant bean bags spewing exhaust and racket. The limestone bluff looked so dry and yellow, Moon thought it might crumble by day’s end. Still, he wanted to run to it and press his cheek against it. He wanted to be off of that bridge as soon as he could. He spit remnants of sour bile into the river. Bells and sirens went quiet, gates raised and traffic resumed in both directions.
Tim broke into a sprint back to his car with JW and Moon following as closely as they could—three dipped heads, waving arms and thumping sneakers on wooden planks. Tim fired up the mighty Chevelle as the boys squirmed into their seats, and the moment the passenger door was closed, Tim spun his tires on the parking lot asphalt, smoke and stink filling the air. He entered the roadway and turned up the incline. Rubber rolling over the grated bridge, the car’s tires sounded a low siren of their own. Rhiiiiiiii.
“Nice job, surfers,” Tim said. “Everybody. Nice job.”
“Thanks,” Moon said, wondering what he had done besides save his own life. He had stood still. He had done a nice job of standing still?
The oil spots on the empty Spain driveway were poignant reminders that Tim had left JW and Moon behind when he finally passed his driver’s test and could legally go anywhere he liked in his car whether his parents were home or not. He stopped inviting JW and Moon without saying why. Nightly he ripped up and down Jefferson Street alone in his fume-spewing Chevelle. Moon imagined Tim revving his engine at the stoplight in front of Al’s Steakhouse, the antique marquee twinkling as the car readied to lay a patch. When Tim was not home, his bedroom door was closed. Moon eyed the DO NOT ENTER sign every time he and JW passed Tim’s door on their way to deposit more stolen chromes into the grenade sock.
On an overcast Saturday in the fall of eighth grade Moon rang the Spains’ doorbell. No one answered but the front door was open enough for Moon to see JW’s King bag on the floor. The Chevelle was gone. Moon pulled the storm door open, pushed the heavy wooden door into the foyer and stepped into the house. He knocked lightly.
“Hello?” he said. “It’s Moon.”
The house was dark.
“Hello?” he said again. “It’s Moon. Is anyone home?”
He was sure that no one was home but he could not stop himself. He placed one foot on the first step of the staircase and a hand on the banister. Soon he was standing in front of Tim’s door, ears and neck tingling. Moon imagined that the house was his, that he was about to enter his own bedroom. He could not conceive what he might do when he entered the room but he needed to do it. He turned the knob slowly, not to be quiet but because he was afraid. He felt the door move slightly on its own after he freed the latch, and he had to hold it back to prevent it from swinging open. The door wanted to be open, wanted to reveal what was behind it to Moon. He told himself to push, and his hand and arm did just that, slowly, tangerine scent hitting him hard.
Moon saw the side of a dresser, a Bruce Lee poster, curtains, a low table with model boxes stacked neatly upon it. Next he saw a sight that caused a short blast of hot urine to soak his underwear. It was a foot, a leg, a knee. Moon blurted a guttural note of surprise, somewhere between “oh” and “ah” and Tim turned slowly, unfazed by the intrusion. In front of Tim, on top of his knotty pine desk, was pile of gray model parts.
“Check it out, man,” Tim said, turning to his work. Moon ran his fingers across the front of his jeans, searching for wet spots as he walked. Everything was dry on the outside but he could feel drips on his leg. He stood next to Tim’s desk. Moon had not seen Tim in weeks, and had barely talked to him in a month.
“Check it out,” Tim said without looking up. He held up the ship he was building, raising it so high Moon could see it only in profile.
“Awesome,” Moon said. It was a destroyer. JW and Moon had watched Tim build lots of destroyers. They are nimble, Tim had said. They could run circles around bigger ships. Tim set the model down and Moon was able to see that it had an airplane wing glued to the far side of the hull. Tim glued another wing to the side closest to Moon.
“What’s that?” Moon said, unsure if he was asking Tim about the wing or the entire composition.
“It’s a wing,” Tim said. “It’s a boat plane.”
“Is it real?” Moon said.
“It is now,” Tim said. “It’s a destroyer. With wings. It’s a destroyer-flyer. Seaworthy and airborne.”
Tim held the new wing in place with his thick fingers and raised the boat-plane above his head, making it fly at the end of his arm.
“Cool,” Moon said, but he was not sure how cool it was. It was disappointing and embarrassing. Tim’s models were perfect and this one was a farce.
“Where are you going to put it?” Moon said.
Everything in Tim’s room had a place. Would he hang the boat-plane from the ceiling or set it on a shelf?
“I don’t know, man,” Tim said. “You want it?”
“Really?” Moon said.
“Yeah, man. As soon as I finish it, it’s yours.”
“Wow,” Moon said. “Thanks.” He was so happy to be getting something from Tim he did not care how strange or farcical it was.
“Are you just using the wings from the plane?” Moon said. “Or are you using anything else?”
“I don’t know?” Tim said. “What do you think?”
“I think it should have a propeller, too,” Moon said.
“Hell yeah,” Tim said. “One on the front and one on the back.” It occurred to Moon at that moment that both airplanes and ships have propellers. Tim snapped the airplane propeller from the plastic framework and held it against the bow of the ship.
“Yeah,” Tim said, shaking his head to his inner dialogue. “Yeah, yeah….”
Moon was glad that JW was not home, glad to have Tim to himself.
“What should we name her?” Tim said. “The U.S.S….Moon?”
Moon thought for a second.
“The U.S.S. MoonSpain,” he said.
Tim raised his arm and they shook hands above the hybrid model. When Moon left, Tim did not look up to say goodbye. He focused on the model as if he had already forgotten that Moon had been there. Moon wondered if he would ever see the boat-plane again. The way Tim had been acting lately Moon could see him smashing the model to pieces, or hiding it in a drawer, or forgetting that he had ever promised it to Moon. Or that Moon ever existed.
“Moon,” Tim called out. “You coming over on JW’s birthday?”
Moon brightened. Was the old Tim Spain back? Would the three of them go out walking and bring home a midnight haul?
“Yeah,” Moon said. “For sure.”
“I’ll have her ready for you then,” Tim said.
“Awesome,” Moon said.
As he did every year on Dec. 23, Moon walked to the Spain house for a piece of JW’s birthday cake, and to help with the Christmas tree. Mrs. Spain would not allow the tree to be built until JW’s birthday had been properly celebrated. She would be damned if Christmas would outshine the birth of her son.
“I need to talk to you,” Tim whispered to Moon as JW carried ornaments up from the basement.
Time to go upstairs and collect the U.S.S. MoonSpain, Moon thought.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Tim said.
Crap, Moon thought. It isn’t finished.
“Nothing,” Moon said. “I can come and get it tomorrow.”
“Get what?” Tim said.
“The U.S.S. MoonSpain.”
“The what?” Tim said.
“The boat-plane, the MoonSpain.”
“Oh,” Tim said. “The model. I’m not exactly done with that.”
“Will you be done tomorrow?” Moon said.
“No,” Tim said. “But I want to talk to you about something.”
“Really?” Moon said, intrigued. “Like what?” This sounded even better than the model.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Tim said. “I’ll pick you up at noon.”
Moon’s eyes widened. “Is it something bad?” he said.
“Not really,” Tim said.
“Okay,” Moon said. What else could he say?
Moon waited at the kitchen table, his sisters emerging slowly from their bedrooms, drinking grape soda straight from cans, pouring cereal into bowls and chewing with their fists over their eyes. He stood up and looked out the window, hoping Tim had not come and gone. Moon would have waited all day if he had to, and he almost did. When he finally heard the Chevelle’s horn he ran to it. Tim’s car was idling in the Purchase driveway, dripping oil and filling up with fumes. Moon fought the urge to pull his shirt up over his nose as they motored west on Black Road into the blinding sun.
“Where are we going?” Moon said.
“We’re cruising,” Tim said.
I’m cruising with Tim Spain, Moon thought. Again he was glad that JW was not there. Moon relished having Tim to himself.
“We going anywhere in particular?” Moon said louder than he needed to.
“You’re never going anywhere when you’re cruising,” Tim said, his eyes never leaving the road. “You’re just going.”
Tim turned onto Larkin Avenue and pressed the gas pedal. The engine no longer gurgled—it roared. They sailed past the water tower that Tim had once climbed, and past a glass-front Schwinn store and the Camera House. A few blocks later they shot down a hill toward two enormous smokestacks, flames and smoke spewing out like Roman candles ready to blow.
The needle was past one-hundred when Tim finally lifted his foot off the gas pedal. He curved along a small road and finally pulled off into a gravel parking lot next to the canal. The Chevelle skidded to a halt a few feet from a low wall and a cloud of exhaust floated out over the putrid water, evidence of their speed and fury. Tim killed the engine.
In the distance a huge cantilever bridge carried Interstate 80 over the canal. Moon found it strange to see the bridge from that angle, from below, its wide concrete footings standing in the water like a giant’s legs. Tim and Moon leaned on the wall, a long line of empty barges floating in front of them, swirls of oil and green scum on the water.
“Could you promise not to tell anyone if I tell you something?” Tim said.
“Yeah,” Moon said. “Like what?”
“You have to promise first,” Tim said.
“Yeah,” Moon said. “I promise.” Anything, Moon thought. He could not look at Tim—only the barges. Rust, welded cracks, painted words fading. Moon could feel Tim’s eyes on the side of his face.
“I’m thinking about killing myself,” Tim said. He set a white envelope in front of Moon with the word SPAINS on it.
“What?” Moon said.
“I need you to give this note to my mom if something happens.”
“Like if I kill myself,” Tim said.
“Are you maybe not going to?” Moon said.
“No,” Tim said. “I’m probably…I’m going to do it…I just don’t know when.”
“Why?” Moon said.
“It doesn’t matter why,” Tim said.
“Why do you want to kill yourself?” Moon said. He was asking less about Tim’s unhappiness than he was about why suicide was the best solution.
“It doesn’t matter why,” Tim said again. “Give that note to my mom when you hear the news.”
The news, Moon thought. Bad news.
Tim offered his hand to shake. Moon wanted to refuse but he could not say no to Tim, not even for this. They shook hands.
“You promised,” Tim said. “I need you to do this for me.”
Moon nodded. They got back into the Chevelle. Moon coughed as exhaust filled his nose and mouth. They fishtailed, gravel and ice pelting the car like machine-gun fire. All the way home Moon wondered who he could tell, who could stop Tim. What if Moon told someone and Tim lived? What would Moon’s life be like then? He hated the secret but loved having a secret with Tim Spain.
On January 2, the Purchase phone rang. Moon took quick steps toward the kitchen phone but slowed when it stopped ringing. One of his sisters usually picked up first, the extension cord of the second phone allowing either of them to place it within arm’s length as they did whatever they did weekend mornings in their rooms. Moon’s sister returned the phone to its cradle and called out to her brother. Moon cracked her door, careful not to look inside.
“Your Spain friend’s brother died last night,” she said.
Moon did not ask how.
He closed the door, retrieved the envelope from under his mattress, stepped on Alaska and scanned the kitchen for his coat. He had promised. Moon left his house without saying a word to anyone, out into the cold, out toward the end of his second life. He could see his breath in the bitter air. Snow squeaked under his boots. Chain-link gates whined. Dogs barked. Old ladies came to their windows in housecoats.
Moon could not have known how long his choice would ripple. Was it a choice?, he would later ask himself. Tim was gone, and Moon could not keep that word out of his head as he walked alone, no longer a friend of the Spains. Gone. It would echo and stir in him, along with the shrill cry that spilled out of Mrs. Spain, and the thump of her hand slamming against his cheek. Later, the wind would carry train whistles up from the tracks that Tim died on, across the West Side and through Moon’s bedroom screens.
He would tell himself that entering the Spain house had been a good choice and on some days he would even find the strength to forgive himself. But the words that others would repeat to him so many times for years to come would lose their meaning and collapse into mere sounds so faint he could more easily hear snowflakes landing on the ground outside his window: You were just a boy, Quincy, just a boy.