It was Saturday morning, and overhead the gray skies pressed downward, oppressive, smothering. Winters in Middleton were like this—had always been like this—cold and gray and rainy and just a touch too warm for snow. Whether due to some natural phenomenon or another, maybe the lakes, maybe the corn, maybe the far-off Rockies, snow came only once or twice a season. Robbie glanced out his window and felt the grayness of everything seep down into his bones.
Today’s weather was enough to make someone want to do something desperate.
He sat on his bed in his bedroom, with the door locked, playing the little electric guitar his mother had bought for him about a year ago. It was not plugged into an amplifier, because he didn’t own one.
Still in his flannel pajamas, he had awoken earlier to eat cereal and watch some television. Then his parents had woken up, about an hour later than he had, and he retreated to his bedroom. He hated when both his parents were home. If they stayed in the same room for more than an hour at a time, they always got into an argument. If it wasn’t this, it was that, and if it wasn’t that, it was always something else.
So he played guitar. Blues, mostly, simple licks that the other guitar players at school taught to him. They were mostly eighth-graders, but they were outcasts as much as Robbie was, with their black clothing and black fingernail polish. They didn’t care if they hung out with fellow eighth-graders. They associated with fellow guitarists, no matter the age. An appreciation for the music was the only thing they cared about. Paul Wilson, one of the most talented among them, even had friends at the high school.
But Robbie knew they weren’t his friends. They were just some guys he spent time with every now and then. They were all right, and he didn’t dislike them, but they would never really be his friends.
He put his guitar back in the second-hand guitar case he had bought with his allowance money and lay down on the bed. He could think of almost no one he knew who could be a friend. Bill Weaver came over every now and then, but he was just too intense for Robbie to handle on a regular basis. The only other person he really knew was Stacey, and even with her, he’d known her less than half a year.
These depressing thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the telephone in the hallway. He listened to it ring once, twice, and then his father answered it with a slightly irritated, “Hello?” It was most likely one of his mother’s co-workers, calling to beg her to come into work today. It was always the same—huge crisis, immediate attention needed, so sorry to ruin the weekend, but could you? Just this one time? And she always went.
But instead of yelling for Catherine to come to the phone, he pounded on Robbie’s locked door. “Phone for you! Some girl.”
“Who?” asked Robbie through the door.
“I don’t know. Sarah, maybe?”
His father must mean Stacey. He never could get names right.
Robbie unlocked the door and went to the cordless phone, which was on a side table in the living room. His father had left the receiver on the table. After returning to the safety of the bedroom, Robbie said, with feigned disinterest, “Hey, Stacey, what’s up?”
“Absolutely nothing,” she complained. “That’s why I’m calling. You want to go to the mall or something? We could get some food, play some shooters at the arcade, mess with the little figurines at the tabletop games store. Scare all the adults who’ll think we’re drug-addicted, shoplifting gang members.”
“You’re in a good mood today.”
“I can’t help it.” She sighed. “My mom’s been on my case all day. Why don’t I do the dishes? Why don’t I clean my room? I swear to God, ever since she and my dad got divorced … ”
“You don’t know that’s the reason your mom’s on your case all the time.”
“What else could it be?”
“Maybe the dishes need to be done, or maybe your room needs to be cleaned.”
“Thank you, Robert. Thank you so much.” Stacey’s voice dripped venom. It amused Robbie that she was beginning to get annoyed. “So, yes or no to going to the mall?”
“Hang on a second,” he said, then held the receiver against his chest. He opened his bedroom door and yelled, “Hey, Mom! Can I go to the mall?”
“Um, soon. I’m meeting a friend there.”
If he told her it was a girl, she would instantly say no. She wouldn’t understand that Stacey was just a friend. Some creative truth-telling was in order.
“My friend Stanley.”
“I don’t know of any Stanley,” Catherine protested.
Robbie rolled his eyes, although she couldn’t see him do it from where she was. “Mom, you don’t know any of my friends.”
After a brief pause came the reply: “Fine. You can go. But you need to be back by three.”
He lifted the phone back up to his ear. “Hey, good news. I can stay at the mall until three. See you in half an hour?”
“Don’t be late, Robert. I’m not going to wait around all day for your sorry ass.”
He knew she would, if he was mean enough to make her. But he didn’t point this out. And besides, he wasn’t going to make her wait.
He pulled on a gray tee-shirt and a pair of old, frayed jeans Catherine wouldn’t let him wear to school. Then, in the bathroom, he ran a comb through his hair and performed the daily ritual of scrubbing his face with an anti-acne soap until his skin fairly shone. He looked in the mirror with a critical eye. Good enough, he decided. It was just Stacey, anyway.
He popped into the office, where Catherine sat at a large desk, and asked his mother whether she would take him to the mall. She hesitated, and he knew the answer was going to be no. Catherine explained that she had to run a number of errands this morning and advised him to ask Alan who was—here, she frowned darkly—probably in the garage, “messing around with one of his damned projects.”
So Robbie dutifully went outside to find his father. Inside the garage, Alan stood at his make-shift workbench made of lumber scraps, fiddling with some wires. His brow was furrowed with the utmost concentration, and Robbie did not want to immediately interrupt whatever it was he was doing. He loudly cleared his throat as a gentle way of announcing his presence. Alan jumped a little, then looked up and grinned at his son.
“Hey, how you doing?”
“I’m all right.”
Alan motioned for Robbie to come over to the bench. “Here,” he said, handing him some wires, “you can be my assistant. Just hold these wires in place while I solder them.” Quickly and cleanly he worked, and although Robbie’s hand shook slightly at having the flame so near his fingers, not once did his father burn him.
When they were finished, Robbie inspected the piece of equipment that had needed soldering. It was a radio, as far as he could tell. Alan noticed his curiosity.
“It belongs to Mrs. Katz, from down the street,” he explained. ”She got it from a friend she plays bingo with—the radio’s been busted for years, I guess—and asked if I’d take a look at it. Soldering these wires back in place should do the trick.”
He plugged the cord into an outlet behind the workbench and flipped on the radio. A loud, obnoxious rap song blared through its one measly speaker. With a whoop of triumph, Alan pounded the bench with his fist.
“Ah, there you go! There you go! Good as new.” Banks turned to his son with a smile. “Say, was there any particular reason you came down here? Or did you just want to spend some time with your old man?”
Feeling suddenly uncertain, Robbie didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “Actually, um, I was wondering if you’d take me to the mall.”
“The mall? Did you ask your mother?”
“Yeah, she says it’s okay. As long as I’m back by three.”
Alan leaned against the bench, eyes fixed shrewdly on the boy. “That means you’re going to be needing some money for lunch.”
Robbie looked at his shoes.
“Well, hop in the car, and I’ll give you a twenty. That’ll cover lunch, right?”
“Yeah, definitely.” Robbie grinned. “That’ll be great. Thanks, Dad!”
They got into Alan Banks’ old SUV, which made up in size what it lacked in youth, and they buckled in. Hank Williams started paying as soon as Alan turned the key, but then, in the SUV, it seemed like Hank Williams was always playing. Alan liked Hank Williams. Robbie did not.
They did not speak while they drove. They seldom did. Neither of them really knew what they would say.
It was unnecessary for Robbie to specify which mall he wanted to be taken to, since there was only one mall in Middleton. It stood in the closest thing the town had to a downtown. This semi-urbanized area, which straddled the town park and the town’s main river, was comprised of a one-street strip of Mom and Pop stores, a grocer, a diner, the town hall, the police and fire departments, and the largest hospital in the county. All important social activity took part in the downtown. Teenagers met their future boyfriends or girlfriends at the mall, bought official marriage licenses in the town hall, and gave birth to their children in the hospital.
The few things one could not do here—such as attending Sunday services, gossiping about the Joneses while singing hymns, or getting buried—one could do at the Faith Memorial Baptist Church, pastored by Reverend Hickory, which stood about two miles down the road. Otherwise, anything a reasonable citizen could ever want or need was to be found in the downtown.
After getting the twenty dollars from his father, Robbie quickly went on the hunt for Stacey, finally finding her loitering around the south side entrance to the mall. She was wearing a too-tight leather jacket and a not inconsiderable amount of metal accessors, and she’d pulled back her hair into a severe ponytail. He trotted up to her.
“What’s with the punk girl look?”
Stacey looked at him and gestured toward his tee-shirt and ratty jeans. “What’s with the homeless guy look?”
He shrugged, and she grinned at him. As they went inside to warm up, Robbie decided the reason he liked Stacey the most was that she wasn’t afraid to say what she really meant. He’d always wanted to be like that but never seemed able to pull it off. It was, he concluded, a combination of genetics and upbringing.
“Robert, look at that.” Stacey had disturbed his train of thought, pointing to his left. His eyes followed her finger to what had caught her attention.
It was a music store, with a guitar and amplifier combo in the front window. A small, off-brand Stratocaster, along with a large, powerful-looking black amp. Robbie stopped and stared.
Stacey nudged him. “Didn’t you say you wanted an amp?”
“Of course I want an amp. But I could never afford something like that.”
“You should ask for one for Christmas, then.”
“No way,” said Robbie, without even thinking. “I can’t do that. It’s too much money.”
Giving him the irked look she reserved for complete morons, Stacey said, “Your folks are like my mom. She works too much and feels guilty as hell. You know, mothers should be with their daughters, stuff like that. So she buys me whatever I ask for, especially at Christmas. If you asked for that amp, you could get it.”
This was true. Probably. He thought about saying something like that to Catherine, and then he envisioned trying it on Alan. It could work. But just thinking about it made his stomach burn in an unpleasant sort of way.
He shook his head. “No. I don’t want the amplifier that bad. Maybe if I save up enough allowance money, I can find a little cheap one at a yard sale somewhere.”
“Hey, suit yourself.”
Passing by the music store, they ambled onward toward the food court, pausing here and there, first to look at clothes, then to look at phones. The food court, when they finally reached it, was located at the center of the mall. High-schoolers stood around the tables rather than sat at them, sipping pop and looking vaguely malevolent, while old blue-hairs rested their aching bones on the benches, eating giant pretzels. Robbie mulled over his choices. There was pizza, tacos, hamburgers, hot dogs, some kind of awful-looking Chinese stir-fry, pretzels—
“Robert!” Stacey hissed into his ear, while her elbow hit him between the ribs. Robbie let out a quiet grunt. “Isn’t that Mr. Klein?”
Blinking, Robbie followed Stacey’s gaze. And yes, indeed, there was Gerald Klein, sitting at a table at the very edge of the food court. Robbie had not recognized him before because he was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt today, not the khaki and button-up shirt he wore while teaching. He looked somehow much older than he did in the classroom, despite his more casual clothes. A half-eaten piece of pizza was on his table, and his head was buried in a book.
“He looks lonely,” said Stacey, and she frowned.
“Maybe he is lonely.” Robbie jerked his head towards the hot dog stand. “C’mon. Let’s go get some hot dogs.”
Stacey raised an eyebrow at him. “Don’t you think we should go say hello to Mr. Klein?”
Robbie did not look at her. He could not take his eyes off his English teacher. “Because he doesn’t need two random students hassling him in a public mall. He probably just wants to be left alone.”
“Maybe he wants some company.”
Robbie didn’t understand why she wouldn’t let it go. He wished she would.
“And maybe he doesn’t. Who knows? Who cares?” he added savagely.
Just as he was thinking this, Mr. Klein looked up from his paper. His eyes, as if guided by satellite or the divine hand of God himself, instantly found Robbie’s. The expression on his face was one of immeasurable sadness. It frightened Robbie, although he didn’t know why. The look on Gerald Klein’s face was like a doctor telling him he had a terminal illness and would die within the year.
Stacey noticed and began tugging Robbie away. They did not return to eat lunch in the food court until an hour later, after the lunchtime crush of noon. After they had left, Klein carefully marked his place in his book and threw away his leftover food. He was afraid he had spooked the boy. Poor kid probably thought he was a stalker. But he couldn’t help but stare—even in a crowded mall, Robert Banks stood out. His intensity, the way his brow was furrowed so darkly, the hunch of his small shoulders, the depths of his near-black eyes, his entire presence haunted Gerald Klein.
He was someone who cried out for a guardian angel. Klein remembered with a bittersweet smile his nephew Nathan. He remembered the sweet little toddler that Nathan had been, so eager to investigate the bugs in the grass. He remembered the intelligent, quirky boy who had loved school and robots and reading and old episodes of that Bob Ross painting show.He remembered the sad, angry fifteen-year-old, who had snuck out of the house one night and who died in an old, abandoned house, entirely alone because his friends had ran as soon as the sirens came near. Poor, sad Nathan, who had been using drugs for a while, long enough that one ever was sure whether the overdose was an accident or intentional.
In retrospect, it was easy to see how Nathan had always been given to melancholy, to seclusion. Nathan had been a tragedy-in-waiting anyone with the sense of a horse should have been able to see, but they hadn’t seen. None of them had seen. Not even Nathan’s favorite uncle.
Gerald Klein thought of Robert and remembered Nathan.
Gerald Klein knew nothing of the Banks’ family situation nor did he care. Even the most loving parents could sometimes be blind. Robbie must have someone to watch out for him. Klein had had enough catastrophe in his life. Enough pain. Enough loss. Needless, terrible, wasteful loss. Children—just children, despite the ways they tried to be older, to be more—and Klein stood there in the mall food court, aching, and thinking.