Note to the Reader:

Hello and welcome to Orange Heights. This blog has migrated a few times, so the entry dates might be a little confusing. Apologies...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Chapter 23: Your usual scream

That was fast, thought Maureen, as she recognized Naomi's scream. How could it be that a new neighbor, less than a week on the Avenue, could be facing peril again, such that she would scream for help and be instantly recognizable?

Maureen had been dozing in a green plastic lawn chair, contemplating her tomato plants, when she heard Naomi. The Friday afternoon was warm, reassuring to Maureen, who had planted her tomatoes and peppers the week earlier. Though she never put it into words, and rarely into thoughts, her garden was important. The spring planting, the summer watering and waiting, and August bounty of tomatoes and peppers reflected order in what often looked like a random and chaotic universe. While each summer brought a challenge -- bunnies, blight, the groundhog Dylan had named Garth -- there was a certainty to the process. Seeds, sun and water yielded plants. No more, no less.

Stretching, Maureen considered Naomi and her scream. Was there a real factor to the scream? She decided not, though she could, perhaps should, walk around to the front of the house to see what was going on. Slowly, she stood and gazed at the yard.

The garden plot was the same each year, the same sunny side of the yard that her grandfather had planted before her, staked out when Orange Heights was a smaller town, and very different. In the 1930s, when her great-grandfather worked for the railroad, the family lived next to the tracks. When the train whistle blew, her great-grandfather rushed out of the tiny house to release the barriers on Orange Heights Avenue, which stopped pedestrian and horse traffic and allowed the train to pass safely. The rush of the train's iron wheels on the metal tracks rattled the windows of the house, and the downtown noises of horses, carriages, and trade meant noise, always noise. No wonder he sought another neighborhood, once he had a dollar or two in his pocket.

Great-grandpa Geary, known always as Gear, both for his last name and his habit of tinkering with machinery, chose a house on Third Street, backing onto Orange Heights Avenue. When his brother followed, and a sister brought her children to the area, the street became known as "Geary's Alley." As he told the story, every house held a Geary by birth or marriage.

His son, Maureen's grandfather, was born and raised on Third Street. His childhood, thought Maureen, was a cross between The Little Rascals and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; it sounded charming in recollection, but her father, Al, and brothers skipped school, rode on the back of trash trucks, and generally made life hell for their mother. She died young, probably worn out by the effort of raising four boys and two girls.

Maureen walked around to the front of her house, brushing against the rose bushes that would soon bloom yellow. She heard raised voices, angry voices, but not hurt or fearful.

She found Naomi in tears, red-faced and looking away. Facing her was Cole, arms folded across his chest, looking angry. His dog whimpered next to him.


Chapter 22: Cole and Bounce

Home from school that afternoon, Cole took milk and a sandwich to his room and closed the door. His cell phone and iPod remained downstairs, where their temptations were out of sight. Likewise, he yanked the cord that connected his computer to the virtual world, and started up a word-processing program. He lay on his bed to eat and contemplate the ceiling.

Cole reached under his bed for a book, a review copy he found on his father’s desk downstairs. Cole studied the yellow cover, and the red script that read “Bounce.”

He had picked up the book hoping for a racy read, but it wasn’t that: the book was written by Matthew Syed, medal-winning table tennis player who looked at the competition and realized that most of it came from the neighborhood where he grew up. Looking for an explanation, Syed concluded that much great success -- whether athletic or artistic -- resulted from opportunity meeting relentless practice. The author, read Cole, saw 10,000 hours of practice as a reasonable minimum for achieving success.

“No shit,” said Cole aloud, no stranger to long practice.

Cole learned years earlier that part of the secret of cool was focus, focus on one aspect of life at a time. He saw this in the athletes that his father profiled, boxers who worked on punch for a month, or a golfer who refined her swing for a season. The best athletes worked dispassionately, putting aside ego to focus on the task at hand. Then, once the swing was perfected, the same athlete would move onto the next technique. The very best strengthened one weakness at at time.

Likewise, Cole considered the skills for leadership success in high school, listing them aloud as he lay on his bed.

“Academics, social mobility, appearance, athletic prowess, knowing everybody’s name, doing good stuff like charity, and crazy self-confidence,” he said to the ceiling.

Sure, he saw other avenues to success, by way of writing, the arts, maybe running for an office. Those weren’t his skills, though, or his interests, so he put them aside, and focused on what he could do well.

What Cole also learned by observation was that without academic success, all other social gains in high school were like a castle built on quicksand; failure, especially public failure, could bring down the edifice. He did schoolwork and homework diligently, rarely complaining -- what was the point and who had the time? -- rarely passionate about the subject matter.

When Chemistry meant finding logarithms, he did so. He practiced a dozen at a time until he could effortlessly demonstrate in class. Spanish asked for the future subjunctive, so Cole did the exercises in the back of the workbook until he knew it cold, then tore the pages out. For part of his strategy was to keep such efforts under wraps.

Cole opened the book at random and read about David Beckham, now a supermodel as much as a soccer player, who spent days of his youth practicing the kick that made him famous. This made sense to Cole; how else could you convince the world watching that your achievements were effortless unless you worked hard and long hours? The trick to high school, thought Cole, was keeping those efforts a secret.

Daisy scratched on Cole’s bedroom door, so let her in and scratched her head. She licked the last sandwich crumbs from his hand.

“Here’s what I want to know,” he told the dog. “How did those guys know which thing to do? Which sport or whatever to pursue? Which is mine?”

The dog sniffed the floor, looking for more crumbs.

Cole turned to his computer and considered the list of assignments that he had posted. Calculus, check.
Spanish, not due for a week.
English, Act II of Hamlet, done.

What loomed was a History project, an architectural scavenger hunt, where the class had to find Ionic and Doric columns, Rosettes and even limestone artichokes in local buildings. The task included locating and photographing the elements, describing them fully, and connecting them to the ancient world. It was, as Cole told Daisy, “a shitload of work.”

But it had to be done, so Cole picked up the assignment sheet and walked downstairs. He took a digital camera from his father’s desk and headed to the end of Orange Heights Avenue, closely followed by Daisy.

“That shit-crazy house has all kinds of columns,” said Cole. “Let me get a couple of these checked off my list.”

Chapter 21: Boris, born for apartment living, owns a house

On the midtown direct train, which was stalled in the Meadowlands for a brush fire delay, Boris looked out the window at what passed for nature and looked like a set for "The Sopranos." Long, brownish-green grasses leaned sideways in the wind, the field bisected by marshes or swamps, Boris didn't know which.

Even now, having read, written and spoken English since seventh grade, there were expressions that puzzled Boris. What was the difference, he wondered, between a creek and a brook? He read the Harry Potter books on his iPod, and still puzzled over the difference between ogres, trolls, and fiends. Size? Ferocity? He made a note to find Harry Potter in Russian, to look up the words, or to ask his mother.

In other realms, Boris knew the words and concepts. He reveled in the language of finance, where precision was all. He could talk about Star Wars and Star Trek in three languages. Somewhere in the house, or in his mother's apartment in Jersey City, there was a Klingon-Russian dictionary that Boris and his brother Evan crafted in middle school.

Boris thought about the boxes and the big house, his big, old house on Orange Heights Avenue. There was no question that he and Naomi had bitten off more than they could chew, a favorite expression of Boris and his brother, suggesting as it did a glorious excess. Nothing had prepared him for owning a house. Born in Moscow, raised in a massive apartment complex, Boris had known no other life -- everyone he knew lived the same way -- until he was 13 years old.

Still, Boris sometimes woke at night imagining himself in the Moscow airport -- he could see the Cyrillic letters painted on the wall in grey -- sitting on a suitcase next to his brother. The two of them waited silently, among another 50 travelers to find out their destination, whether New York or Tel Aviv. The resettlement agents charged around the waiting area waving sheafs of papers at Soviet officials, calling names, calling again, then sending families to either one boarding gate or another. Boris remembered watching passengers disappear down one long hallway, sometimes turning around for a last look, others rushing towards the plane.

His mother and father hoped for New York, where two uncles and a dozen cousins already lived.

"Greenpoint," Boris and Evan said aloud, when his parents talked about the move. "We live in Greenpoint."

"Not yet," said his mother, eager to ward off the ill temper of fate. "Don't even think it."

But how could he not, wondered Boris. The doorway was framed with postcards from Manhattan, a nighttime view of a bridge, gaudy buildings, the iconic Statue of Liberty. Boris drew the same images in the corners of his school notebooks; his hopes, too, lived in Manhattan.

As the New Jersey Transit train lurched forward, Boris shook his head and returned to the present.

"Next stop, Penn Station," said a conductor over the loudspeaker. "The end of the trip, last stop, final destination."

If only that were so, thought Boris, thinking of Orange Heights. That's my final destination now.

Chapter 20: Would you like to introduce your cousin to the whole school?

At Livingston Academy, Rohit slouched against the wall. He moved slowly along the hallway between classes, as if the swirling crowd of students around him weren't there, or as if he had a timetable unconnected to their tightly-scheduled days. He watched the tiny loops of yarn that made up his sweater catch on the rough cement between the wall's smoother panels and wondered if he could create enough friction with his sleeve to create a fire. He consider the possibility, wondering what the punishment would be for starting a fire in a crowded hallway with a sweater. What if no one got hurt? What if the only victim was the sweater? Rohit sighed deeply and walked even slower to his Humanities class.

With Jairaj visiting, it seemed unlikely that the conversation at home would turn to school and Rohit and his future happiness at Columbia High School. Even as a child, Rohit realized that such changes meant conversation with his parents, his father making decisions quickly, his mother crafting a list of pros and cons, weighing the options carefully. She planned even the smallest outings, researching all the possibilities, and contingency plan was one of her favorite expressions. Rohit sighed again. Perhaps he shared these characteristics; how else could he explain his irritation at his cousin's surprise visit?

Rohit stopped beside a trophy case full of bronze golfing figures and rubbed his sweater against the wall again, back and forth, back and forth, as he thought about his cousin. Rohit's earliest memories were of BA flights to India, and climbing onto the suitcases his parents packed carefully weeks ahead of their trips. His mother hoarded Clinique and jeans chosen to match relatives' measurements, while his practical father gathered Advil and granola bars, both for himself, both staples of his daily life. Nearly every summer the family traveled to Lahore, and they had squeezed shorter trips -- for weddings and birth ceremonies -- into shorter school holidays. Rohit sometimes returned dazed by jet lag and puzzled when his classmates talked about Thanksgiving turkeys, while his memories were of crowds and dancing.

Friends and classmates asked, "How was India?" or said, "Tell me about the Taj Mahal." It was only last summer, after years of nagging, that Rohit finally visited the Taj Mahal. His weeks spent in India sometimes felt like a parade of relatives, though he was the parade forced to march through a dozen sitting rooms, drinking hundreds of cups of tea.

He read the Harry Potter series of books in India, after resisting the trend for years, and completed all seven in a week. Another summer brought him Dickens, leather-bound volumes from a great-uncle's collection. Last year, he barrelled through the Hitch-Hiker's Guide series. When he thought of India, he felt the thin, humidity-soaked pages under his fingers, and saw the angular print on the page. The British spellings intrigued him; how could people speaking the same language agree to disagree on spelling, but limit the possible spellings to two? Why could favorite and favourite be correct, but no other version of the same word? And why the favorite child in every single sitting room, dance hall, and kitchen not him, but Jairaj? Why did Jairaj, who seemed to have the attention of all of India, come to New Jersey for more?

"Loud," Rohit said. "Big. Attention-sucking."

"Same to you," said Julian, nudging him from behind with his backpack."What are you doing out here? Scottland's gonna yell at you."

"I don't care," said Rohit, knowing even as he said it that he sounded like a child. "I don't like that teacher anymore."

Julian stared at his friend and waited.

"My mother told her that my cousin is visiting from India, and wants to come to school. So she --" Rohit gestured towards the classroom door with his shoulder, "invited him to talk to the class. About India."

Rohit saw that Julian didn't understand. "My cousin is a huge pain in the -- " he added.

"So?" asked Julian. "You get extra credit if you bring someone in. Remember how I made my grandmother come when she visited from Bruges? Extra quiz grade, buddy, can't miss."

"But Jairaj is loud," protested Rohit. "And he's boring. India is boring. We spent the whole fall doing India. Boring."

Julian shrugged. "Kylie brought in her cousin from Canada, which is like next to upstate New York. That's boring," he said. "Anyway, we gotta get in there."

Rohit followed his friend to the classroom door, aware that they were entering late. Julian held the door open for Rohit. As Rohit passed, his friend asked, loud enough for the class to hear, "What happened to your sweater? It looks like you were chewing on it."

Rohit didn't reply. The teacher turned to them. Instead of a reprimand, she greeted them gleefully. "A cousin from Lahore, Rohit. How lucky you are. How lucky we are." She turned to the class to include them in the luck. "And Rohit's cousin made a powerpoint of his whole life -- and you, yes, pictures of you, Rohit."

Rohit looked at the floor and then at his classmates as the teacher talked on about the anticipated pleasures of powerpoint and baby photos. This must be bad, he thought, looking around the room. They weren't even laughing at him; the rest of the class looked as mortified as he felt.

Chapter 19: Here's to you, Mrs. Robin

Emma's teacher smiled at the group of waiting kindergarteners. "We have the grand finale in the poetry festival," she told them with the air of magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. "The whole evening leads up to us."

Emma looked around the classroom at the other five and six-year-olds, all of whom looked awed. Jeremy looked like he might cry, while Annabel was already waving her hand in the air.

"Can I have the big part?" asked Annabel. "In Beauty-and-the-Beast-on-Broadway --" she pronounced this as if were one long word -- "there was a beautiful princess in the grand finale." She paused to inhale. "In Disney-Princess-Fantasia-on-Ice there was a finale with all of the princesses." Annabel looked around the class almost, Emma thought, as if she were challenging the bunch of them. "I could be the beautiful princess," Annabel said.

"Thank you, Annabel," said the teacher. "The whole group will be the finale, in fact."

There was a nervous silence as the children waited.

"We're reciting a poem called 'The Butterfly Ball," and -- yes, Annabel, I see you hand -- we'll all be animals," said Mrs. Robin.

"Is that because your name is Mrs. Robin?" asked Ethan, which Emma thought was a good question. He forgot to raise his hand, she noticed.

"I won't be an animal in the poem," explained the teacher. "I'll be the director animal." She laughed, and the class laughed with her politely.

It was clear to Emma what was going through her classmates' minds. Which animal would each child be? Would there be a selection process? A food chain of kindergarten animals, where the most powerful in the class would select first. Would costumes be involved? And, of course, who would be the butterfly?

Repeating after the teacher, the children said, "If I can't find a a dress that's smaller than small, then I can't go to the butterfly ball."

"Hmmm," said Mrs. Robin. "Not bad for the first day, but it's almost as if you're all thinking about something else. That part is the chorus that we'll repeat over and over. Then each animal or pair of animals has a special line."

Pair of animals, thought Emma. A new worry.

Chapter 18: Stats and a Long Shot

Back home after driving the neighborhood looking for Ann and Dylan, Joe sat down in front of his computer to ponder In less than a day, the personal ad that Cole crafted yielded almost 200 replies from women of every age and stage.

"How am I supposed to choose?" he asked Daisy, as NewsRadio88 played behind him. He scanned the listings and found photos of women dressed formally, casually, even hardly dressed. He looked at their names: Smiley, GingerCat, OrangeTabby, MostlyHappy.

He glanced down at his sleeping dog. "I guess the cat ones are out," he said. "That's a problem right there." He moved to delete a listing labelled FancyCat, but hesitated.

"Cole would tell me that I'm looking for reasons to limit this list," said Joe aloud. "He would be right."

Walking to the kitchen, where he poured a cup of coffee from the pot on the counter, Joe picked up the Star-Ledger and glanced at the sports pages. It was the habit of a lifetime; he had written a good bit of what he read, and knew the scores already, but couldn't resist. Derek Jeter homered against the A's, and Joe mentally calculated the player's batting average.

"Not bad," he murmured, then shook his head when he read of the Mets' fielding errors.

A quantifier by nature, Joe tallied the losses and wins in his mind, keeping track of the local teams' scores so far in the season. Swallowing the coffee, he returned to his desk and looked again at the website before him.

"Stats," he murmured. "That's what I need. Stats will show the way."

And taking a pen and piece of graph paper, he began labelling columns across the length of the paper. He turned it sideways to copy the names. TabbyKat led the list.

Chapter 17: The Dumbwaiter Mystery

For the second time in a week, and again in her pajamas, Naomi found herself plied with tea and biscuits by the neighbors. She was exhausted from the waves of anxiety that she felt in the basement, but exhilarated after its release on her psyche and her stomach. She couldn't eat cookies quickly enough as she sat in Surya's kitchen, hands still shaking as they clutched a mug of Five Roses tea.

"Thank you," she said again, looking at Surya. "Thank you for getting us out."

"It was nothing," said Surya. "And it was my father's doing. I'm sorry he had to leave so quickly, but a cousin was driving him to Best Buy this morning and nothing would deter them from browsing for large, useless electronics." Surya grinned to show Naomi that she was joking.

Naomi nodded and smiled. She glanced at the tea cup in front of her.

"You must wonder what we were doing in there," she said at last.

"Were you looking for something in particular? Or perhaps getting to know the house?" asked Surya, taking a sip of her tea.

"I was following that old woman," explained Naomi. "It seemed kind of like she was seeing things, kind of remembering things very vividly. It was strange, but sort of exciting." She looked up from her tea. "There's not a whole lot of mystery in life," she said. "I don't mind a little Nancy Drew."

She paused. "You have a son, right?" Naomi continued. "Do you know who I mean by Nancy Drew? I know boys don't usually read those books."

"Of course," replied Surya. "I read them in India, when my cousins brought them in the summer. Along with the Agatha Christie. Did you know that Nancy Drew's creator lived in Orange Heights?"

Naomi looked skeptical, but Surya spoke confidently. "Oh, yes," she continued. "Edward Stratemeyer and his daughters started the company, moved it to Orange, and wrote many of those books." She rose and walked to her refrigerator. Pulling the town calendar from the wall, she returned to the table and opened it to May.

"Look," said Surya, pointing at a photo of the town's Village Hall with a large clock in its cupola. "They say that Stratemeyer drove past this every day on his way to the writing factory in Orange. When he thought of Nancy Drew and crafted a mystery for her, he took inspiration and named the first book Mystery of the Old Clock."

Naomi considered this. Could Stratemeyer have been to her house? Did he find Nancy's inspiration elsewhere?

"The Mystery of the Old Dumbwaiter," she said aloud, then laughed, embarrassed.

Surya looked at her. "Don't forget to mention the china," she said. "Your dumbwaiter was filled with china, enough for a large party. But somehow it was forgotten, left there for decades. What happened?" She stood to refill their cups with hot water. "That, to me, is the mystery."

Naomi rose and opened her mouth to speak again.

"No more thanks," said Surya. "But when the time is right, I will go down to that basement with you and see what other mysteries we uncover."