Sweet Grafton

There I could never be a boy . . .
Frank O’Hara

I.

“Let’s not sit next to Mr. Berger, if there’s any other pew,” said Jake, as they walked along Main Street.

“Mr. Hamburger,” said Alice.

“If we’re not so late that there’s no choice.”

“Mr. Hamburger and the Three French Fries.”

Jake crossed himself, as the Bergers alone in the congregation did. Alice half kneeled, a kind of fake-out kneel. The Bergers kneeled fully, and conspicuously, whenever the prayerbook gave them the option.

“Did you hear him ask Mother if I could go camping?”

“When he came over to ask her for more money?”

“To tithe. Yes. I pretended to be in the attic or not in the house at all.”

“He only wants to be your friend, considering.” Alice was kinder about other people’s motives. “He doesn’t have a son.”

“Or to be Mother’s friend.”

“I don’t think so.”

“His wife died, you know. That’s why they moved here.”

“He poisoned her,” Alice said, suddenly enchanted.

“He made cyanide out of apple seeds. That’s what the witch did to Snow White. That’s the science behind it, anyway.”

“Wouldn’t they find it out from her body, after?”

“No, because apples are a natural food.”

“He didn’t really kill his wife,” Alice then said, to re-establish things as they in fact were.

A brown-and-blue station wagon slowed down beside them. “You’re the Putnams, aren’t you? Are you on your way to church?”

It was odd to be called the Putnams, as if Mother and Father were with them. Jake recognized the driver. It was Tim Brennan, who had come back home from college because it was summer and because his mother had just finished dying of cancer in her throat.

“Hi,” Jake said. “We are. On our way.” They had never spoken to him before.

“Do you want a ride?” He had thick lips, as if he were black. “I don’t think you’d get in trouble. I’m not really a stranger if I know you from church, am I?”

Alice frowned. She didn’t know that Tim’s mother had died.

“He goes to church every week,” Jake said.

“I don’t remember seeing him,” she whispered.

“He’s been away. At Yale.”

“What if Mother finds out.” Because Jake was letting the rules drop, she felt she had to pick them up.

“She wouldn’t mind. And she isn’t even coming, probably.” That was a foolish thing to have said out loud, if Tim did intend to abduct them.

“Hey,” Tim interjected, over the chuff of the station wagon’s idling engine, “I don’t want to get you in trouble.” He seemed to think neither of them knew about his mother; they were so young, and there was their family situation. “No hard feelings—shall I see you there?”

“Please let’s accept,” said Jake. He felt that it wouldn’t be Christian to refuse. “It’ll be my fault.”

The car seemed to be Tim’s rather than the Brennans’, because there were cassette tapes of rock music all over the floor on the passenger’s side. The tapes didn’t have to be moved because Alice’s feet didn’t necessarily reach the floor. Jake sat in back. In the way back were a sweatshirt and a half-used case of motor oil. Rock music came through the speakers with a watery buzzing, as if the singers were brushing their teeth while they sang.

“This is Elvis,” Tim said.

Jake only listened to classical music, but he didn’t think it was Elvis. He was grateful that it was Alice who asked, “Elvis Presley?”

“No, it’s a new Elvis, from Ireland.” As an introduction, this was a teacher’s ruse, but the openness of the artifice put them at ease.

“It’s okay,” Alice said, diplomatically. “Do you play an instrument?”

“I try to play the guitar sometimes.”

“I play the viola,” she said.

“Can you play by ear?” Jake asked from the back seat. Their grandfather was able to do this, on the piano, but no one else in the family had the knack.

“It’s a little more unusual than the violin,” Alice went on.

“I just play the obvious chords,” Tim answered. “Do you play in the school orchestra? I hear you two are very good students.”

It was strange that he had heard this, because he didn’t have any younger siblings who might have told him. However, Jake knew about Mrs. Brennan somehow.

“I was sorry to hear about your mother,” Jake said.

“Oh thank you.” The tape was between songs, and Tim stopped it. They were almost there. “She had cancer,” he said to Alice, because he could tell she didn’t know.

“I’m sorry too.”

“Here we are. I hope we don’t get into trouble,” Tim said, almost as if he regretted his generous impulse now that there were adults to watch them get out of his car.

Alice and Jake found a pew of their own, and Tim sat with his father, Mr. Brennan.

More from Issue 6

Issue 6 Mainstream

The hype cycle replaces aesthetic judgment with something closer to speculative investment in securities.

Issue 6 Mainstream

Canons in daily life just demarcate the books you can count on other people feeling comfortable about in conversation.

Issue 6 Mainstream

The new “how to read” books convey a sense that schools are no longer teaching people that skill.

Issue 6 Mainstream

Nowadays the NYRB is like a gnarled yew in the middle of a field where all the taller trees have died around it.

Issue 6 Mainstream

A lowered voting age might just be the catalyst to help release our stalled democratic, revolutionary energies.

Issue 6 Mainstream

Ultimately, the antipolitics of fear would deprive the person of his status as a political, even a social being.

Issue 6 Mainstream

You open the book. Who are these people? What’s going on? Where is it going?

Issue 6 Mainstream

Their rarefied verbal music will testify / that many did not have enough to eat.

Issue 6 Mainstream

By now the story of Wayne Lo has been well told, though he has not become a figure of American legend.

Issue 6 Mainstream

To free ourselves, we need to change the very operation of our desires, which the office has duped us into accepting.

Issue 6 Mainstream

The fifty-year summer of Cody’s ended forever at 8 pm on July 10, 2006.

Issue 6 Mainstream

Humans can’t fly in Pamuk’s novels, and they don’t wrestle with their secularity in Marquez’s.

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If Gawker Media, as Denton called his business, could no longer market itself as an upstart, then neither could its flagship site.

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Our future, like our past, may be virtually free of oil, and global culture, and many of the social safeguards we enjoy.

Issue 6 Mainstream

Generalization admits no exceptions and yet the exceptions pop up, often eloquently, to assert their existence.

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Issue 4 Reconstruction

Literature is only an art. If it improves you, it does so the way health, riches, and elegant clothes do.

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One at a time, each of us thrill-seekers was buckled into a vaguely diaper-like nylon brace.

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No more electoral college; no more red, blue, swing; no more U.S.A. . . this thing isn’t working.