Ricky turns to walk back to the house, head jammed with words he learned for his father. Knuckle couplers, command control, terminal tracks, O-gauge rails, steam-powered dribblers and piddlers, DCC transformers. He still doesn’t know what half of them mean. The model railway—Lionel mostly but also some Ives and Marklins—started with Ricky’s great-grandfather, who got rich off the real Southern Pacific. Thanks to him, Chet’s “never had to work a day in his life,” like that’s something to be proud of, like Chet thinks his stupid toy trains are. The room’s supposed to be off limits.
So what did Ricky think he was doing down there last night?
He didn’t think. If he had, he wouldn’t have left his geometry under the stupid train table.
He kicks at the wet leaves gobbing up the front hill. If only he’d remembered before he left the house this morning, but no, he had to get almost all the way out to Valley Road. Then, his mother’s voice came at him like she was hiding behind the bus stop.
Khoo, a pheasant shrieks somewhere back over the hill. Kho-koooo. It’s so loud, it makes Ricky shiver. It’s as if the bird knows just how pathetic this kid is—his proof’s not even finished—and is running off to tell.
Ricky pretends the curb is a tightrope and walks backwards.
His mother’s black wig on the pillow yesterday almost looked real. It made him think how he used to climb in with her when he was little. She’d tent the sheet up over them and read him Peter Pan. In the hospital, however, Mimi’s face was all shrunk and yellow and wrong. The wig hair was too shiny. She had needles stuck under her skin and tubes snaking her arms, so she couldn’t even hug him. “Promise you’ll at least try to work a little harder, Rick. Show Daddy what you’re made of.”
Her breath smelled like dirty gym socks, but he made himself nod and tried not to pull away. Last night was for her. That must be why he went down there. Now he’s going to miss the bus. What did she even mean? What you’re made of?
Mr. Sharpe won’t flunk him, but one more skipped assignment and he’ll call for a parent-teacher conference, and there’s no way that can happen.
Ricky blinks at the yellowing woods ahead. Isn’t it supposed to be cold in October? The leaves ought to be turning real colors.
His father reminds him of Ralph in The Honeymooners: all fat cheeks and pinchy eyes, a mouth like knuckles. Why, I oughtta—hot air. That’s what Mimi says Chet’s full of. Never mind his hot air, Ricky, she’ll say as she pulls him close for a pet. Your daddy’s just a big baby’s all.
Visiting hours, they call them. Like the hospital is where Mimi lives now, and it’s up to him and Chet to fit into her busy schedule. Ricky and Chet. Daddy. When they went to see her yesterday, Chet left as soon as they got there to get himself something from the cafeteria. Mimi held Ricky’s hand and pretended to read his palm. “Eleven years old…” She started to cry, but stopped herself. “You’re going to have a good long life, Ricky B. You’re going to make me so proud of you.” Crying turned her blue eyes gray, and her face looked more like a potato than his mother.
“When are you coming home?” he asked, but she just kept pawing his hair. The tubes slapped his shoulder and gave him the creeps.
His Keds make a squelching sound as he passes the Longs’ swamp. Up ahead, the brown-shingled hulk of his own house looks like a ship stuck on a giant tombstone. The house belonged to Mimi’s parents. They died before Ricky was born. Car crash, but they were already old.
Two deer stand at the bottom of his driveway. They stare at him like eighth graders, like his fly’s open or there’s snot running down his chin, but these are just a couple of dumb deer. So he pinwheels his arms and snaps his book bag on its leash. It feels good, that hard snapping action, and he almost laughs as the bucks take off up the drive. Cowards.
Instead of following them, Ricky climbs the overgrown steps that lead around back through the pachysandra. The basement door opens with a low whine and a stink of metal and mildew and dust. Light drains like puss through the filthy window, over tracks that twist and loop in a circuit that practically fills the room. Chet’s calibrated every signal, drawbridge, elevator, turntable, crane, and miniature watchman to spring to attention at the throw of a switch. Ricky swallows hard and goes in.
The boy has no aptitude. That’s how Mimi excuses him. As if that’s an excuse. Ricky’s such a wimp that a model train whistle once sent him crashing to his knees. Chet tells people it was Mimi’s idea to name the kid after Ricky Nelson, and they’re lucky Ozzie and Harriet don’t sue for libel. Ha. Ha.
He needs to get out of here, but as he bends to look for his paper he starts to sneeze. At the same time, a pipe wails like a siren upstairs. He half expects the toy trains to jerk, clicking around their metal tracks and whistling an alarm.
It’s an old terror. Ever since the one and only time he watched the Twilight Zone—so long ago now he can’t even remember how old he was—the model landscape has given him the creeps. In the Twilight Zone episode, dolls came to life and spied on people. That was all it took. Ricky was convinced these enamel conductors, engineers, and crossing guards were watching him, too. They’d whisper threats up through the heat vents. They’d climb into his dreams, their dead expressions daring him to wake up, even though his shoulders were pinned to the tracks. It’s fun, Chet always said when he brought him down to show him the trains, but around the same time as the Twilight Zone, Chet’s idea of fun changed. It’s how boys play, he’d say. Yeah, Ricky Bicky… just like that. He made Ricky pet him. Harder, he’d say, even when they could hear Mimi humming in the kitchen. All the little men from the train set watched as the bulge inside Chet’s pants got bigger until he finally took Ricky’s hand and pressed it so tight it hurt.
Chet never wakes up before noon. The plumbing stops, and Ricky crawls back under the table. He was so little then. Six? Seven? It stopped after Mimi caught them. She came down to ask what Chet wanted for dinner. She opened the door without knocking. Ricky saw her first and sneezed. The room went white, and Chet threw a fit. All right, then, it’s off limits. You hear me, boy? If I ever catch you down here again, I’ll give you something to cry about. Ricky wasn’t crying until Mimi grabbed his arm and practically carried him upstairs. He can’t remember if she ever actually said anything about it. He only knows he started calling his father Chet after that, and he never came back to the train room again until last night.
On the way home from the hospital, Chet had said he was going to the club. He told Ricky to make himself a TV dinner and get to bed. Usually, when Ricky was home alone he locked himself in Mimi’s room and stayed there watching Father Knows Best or My Three Sons or Bonanza. Sometimes, he rubbed himself the way Chet had shown him. Lots of times. He’d stare at Bud or Mike or Robbie or Chip or Little Joe until the face on the screen burst into a million pieces all glittering inside him so he couldn’t even see right.
Last night, though, he felt as if Mimi had locked him out.
She used to say, Ricky’s such a sensitive boy. She meant he was afraid, but the way she said sensitive made it sound like sweetness and love, so Ricky pretended he was more scared than he ever really was. He wasn’t scared. Not anymore.
Last night, he decided to prove it.
As soon as Chet was gone, Ricky turned on all the lights in the house and pushed himself downstairs. The trains looked just like they had when he was little. The bright reds and greens of the passenger cars, the licorice black locomotives, the shiny brass wheels and make-believe signals.
Like Santa’s workshop, Audrey Long whispered the first time she got a load of Chet’s train set. She and Ricky were in the same kindergarten class. You’re so lucky, my daddy’s always working but yours is fun. Back then, Ricky thought so, too. Audrey changed schools in first grade, and he hardly ever saw her or her father anymore.
Ricky grabs the proof from the far corner under the table, his hiding place last night.
He was supposed to prove that angle A equals angle B because either of them alone with angle C could make a straight line, but he kept seeing A as Chet, B as Mimi, and C as Ricky stuck in between. If Mimi’s angle fell away, wouldn’t Chet’s weight crush him?
“You couldn’t possibly understand,” he remembers her telling Mrs. Long at the party Chet threw last summer, before Mimi got sick. She didn’t usually drink alcohol, but that night she taught Ricky to mix a martini, and she had three of them before cornering Audrey Long’s mother. “You’re beautiful,” she said, “and I’m a mouse. I had nobody. Nobody!” Mrs. Long, who did always look like she was trying to get into a fashion magazine, glanced over at Ricky and steered his mother out to the terrace as Mimi cried, “Chet was my Mouseketeer!”
Last night, Ricky expected the Mouseketeer to come downstairs when he got home. He expected to catch hell. Then, he’d have to fight back, prove that his father had no more power over him than those painted men on the train table did. That Chet couldn’t crush his son even if he wanted to.
When Ricky’s father came home, however, he staggered up to bed as if the fight had already happened. He never even noticed all the lights. Ricky had no idea if he’d won, or lost.
The plumbing squeals again. It’s the shower in the guest bathroom. Ricky catches a whiff of Brylcreem stabbed through with coffee, hears footsteps on the back stairs. He leans into the stairwell.
As he climbs from the kitchen to the second floor, Chet sings out, “Fee fi fo fum.” Ricky watches his father’s red leather slippers slap his fleshy heels. He can hear the grin in his father’s voice. The shower is blasting.
And suddenly everything clicks. Mimi’s home! She’s always loved long, hot showers, even if they do make Chet yell at her all winter over the oil bills. Today, though, he’s just glad she’s back.
“I smell the blood –“
Ricky reaches the kitchen landing in time to see the hem of Chet’s wine-colored dressing gown swing into the guest bedroom. Not quite daring to follow, he scans the kitchen for clues, past the tumble of dishes in the sink, past the windowsill pots of African violets he’s been trying to revive for his mother, past the percolator bubbling coffee and his father’s Felix the Cat clock swinging its black saber tail. Out past the scrim of window ivy, Chet’s custom red De Ville is parked in the turnaround next to a bulging green Mercedes that wasn’t there when Ricky left the house twenty minutes ago. What are the Longs doing here?
The shower shudders to a stop. The floor above Ricky’s head sighs. A second later a woman—not his mother—screams, “How dare you!” The bathroom door slams so hard, he can almost hear the frame splinter.
“Hey!” Chet cries in what Mimi calls his pouty voice. “I thought we could have some fun.” The last word breaks sideways, high and scraping, like a dead branch about to fall. The sound of it makes Ricky catch his breath. The proof is crumpled in his fist. He backs deeper into the kitchen as the stairs heave under his father’s weight, but Chet continues his descent without turning, muttering the way he does at parties when somebody throws a drink in his face, or one of the wives leaves crying, or somebody calls him a “boor.” After those parties, Mimi goes to bed early, and Ricky sits quiet on the floor where she can run her fingers through his hair until the downstairs empties and the only sounds that move through the night are the hollow hum and toots of model trains running their course.
The same sounds that now kick up down there.
“Ricky!” Mrs. Long stops short in the doorway, gripping the knob like it might explode. Her white blouse is shoved into a brown leather belt buckled tight around her wool skirt. Her yellow hair is piled up the way she always wears it, a style his mother calls a French twist, but it’s sort of a mess, with damp strands worming down her forehead and neck. Without her usual icing of makeup, her face looks flat. She’s always scared him a little, Mrs. Long. He mostly only sees her at neighborhood parties, where she talks too loud, as if she’s mad but also wants everybody in the room to stare at her.
Today, though, Mrs. Long looks like she wishes she could blink and disappear. “Our septic system backed up.” The words pop out of her like burps. “I have an important meeting this morning. I- I…” She stamps a foot and suddenly looks straight at him. “Ricky, where’s your mother?”
Mrs. Long lets go of the doorknob then, but her hand just hangs in space. Without her lipstick, the red of her nails looks too bright. Chet lurches into the hall behind her, and his face stretches like Silly Putty when he sees Ricky.
“Mimi’s dying,” the boy lies. He doesn’t know why he says it. Maybe to punish them both. Maybe to test his father.
Chet doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t move. Mrs. Long’s eyes get big and wet and dark, and she makes a little choking sound. Still, Ricky’s father says nothing. He just covers his face with his hands.
Mrs. Long crosses the room then and takes Ricky by the shoulders. She pulls him to her and turns him around as if they’re dancing. When his back is to his father, she talks over his head. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Her clothes smell of flowered perfume and cigarettes. The material feels tough and scratchy and the shape of her body underneath bony, nothing like Mimi’s shrinking softness. Ricky’s glad Mrs. Long is here, but he wishes she weren’t. He feels dark around the edges, a strange floaty sensation.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” she says, and the boy wonders if she’s talking to him. But when he follows the trail of her voice, he sees Chet doubled over, hands on knees, his body heaving. The bathrobe’s come undone, exposing two pale, hairy drumstick legs. Ricky can’t see all the way up, but it’s still disgusting.
“What am I supposed to do,” Chet sobs. “Without her.”
“Can you give me a ride to school?” The question flies out hard and fast. “I had to come back for my homework.” He bats the air with his proof. “If I have to walk I’ll be late.”
Mrs. Long’s mouth opens to let out a sound that’s halfway between a cough and a gargle. She seems to be waiting for Chet to object, to pull his son toward him, to offer, at least, to drive the kid to school. “Of course,” she says finally when the big baby in front of her just keeps blubbering.
“I’m so, so sorry, Ricky,” Mrs. Long says outside. “I had no idea.”
“It’s okay,” Ricky replies but he’s not even thinking about her. Although she keeps talking as they get in the car, he’s concentrating on the two bucks who aren’t there anymore. He’s watching from somewhere outside himself as the green Mercedes rolls past the swamp and over the front hill.
When they reach Valley Road, he climbs back into his skin and breathes for what feels like the first time ever. The Mianus River falls over the dam as they cross the Post Road bridge, and he rolls down his window to hear the bells of St. Catherine’s ringing for some Catholic reason, or maybe they’re just marking time, and he wonders if there’s a difference. He notices how the thrum of traffic grows louder then shrinks as they cross over the thruway. The trees out here aren’t yellow. They’re as red as stop signs.
Finally, Mrs. Long quits whatever she’s been saying. She flicks on the radio to a staticky station that’s playing the same Aaron Copland suite that Mr. Sharpe was playing when Ricky went in for help with his geometry after school last week. Mr. Sharpe asked if he knew this music, and Ricky said he liked it. Mr. Sharpe nodded like that was the right answer even though it was true. Start with the givens, Mr. Sharpe told him then. Use postulates to justify your conclusion. As he talked, he rested his hand on Ricky’s shoulder. It smelled like Zest and was smooth, almost weightless but louder than Mr. Sharpe’s voice. Something doesn’t compute. You’re telling me, Ricky wanted to say, but the softness of Mr. Sharpe’s eyes, like moss, wouldn’t let him. It’s not your fault.
Ricky studies the proof in his lap. There’s another angle. It has no letter or name, but it’s as real as a or b or c.
A whistle echoes around the bend, heading for Riverside station, which he can’t see but knows is only three blocks from here. He pictures the concrete platform, electric signals changing, people looking down the smooth steel tracks, waiting for their train. Any minute now, they’ll rush aboard, and their train will be real. Not a Lionel or Ives or Marklin or any of the miniatures full of hot air that have nothing to do with him and never have. That train will carry them away.